When a place advertises itself as home of the best Octopus Balls in the world, I tend to try and give it as wider berth as possible. Unfortunately, I like a good deer park and aquarium so my hands were tied with regard to staying in Osaka. The majority of life here is present in the Dotonburi district – a magical place with giant octopi sitting atop of buildings and small eel ponds at the bottom of arcades. I even relented to the vibrant, enthusiastic feel of the place and purchased the aforementioned octopus balls. They tasted like a doughnut with a tentacle inside; make of that what you will.
No trip to Osaka could be complete without a quick excursion to Nara (the literal translation being “deer”). Surprisingly enough, there were some deer here, and thus the town planner has scored one in my books. Actually, I’m downplaying it, there were thousands of the little vermin running around. Deer cracker sellers are at every street corner and the four legged demons have learnt to bow to get a cracker; if that fails however, they just sort of ram your thigh until you relinquish whatever food is in your hand. Nara park is undeniably beautiful though; three weddings were going on on just the day we visited (we’re in 2 out of the 3 wedding photos – You are welcome!). Temples and Toris (Giant pretentious gates) pop up between American-park-style forests and picnic areas which, when ignoring the giant rats running around, are really quite impressive. A large wooden temple (I can’t remember the name, nor do I care enough to research it) was particularly cool with large wooden samurai sculptures. Watching an American get stuck in a hole you’re meant to squeeze through for good luck brought me my favourite experience of the day by a mile.
As a personal treat to ourselves from ourselves, we went to Osaka aquarium. As per usual, in a day-care style manner, I left Phoebe with the otters and explored the rest of the aquarium. A giant tank with whale sharks, rays and other fish too large, not tasty enough or too cute to be served up on a bed of rice was set in the middle of the centre. This was not the majestic creature which caught my eye that day however – no – that creature was the sunfish, a glorious creature which kept affectionately nuzzling the poor divers who were in the tank with it. I have remarked upon spirit animals in previous posts but I feel this, mostly due to it’s good looks, is mine.
Lots of love – Deer (The little shit stole my laptop and wrote the god damn post)
An all night flight stemming from Bali being lazy for a day resulted in us arriving at Tokyo ridiculously early. This, combined with a farcical check in time of 4pm resulted in us perching in a bagel shop for nearly two hours before starting to make our move towards the district we were staying in. Renting a pocket Wifi was both a blessing and a curse to me as we could now find out where we are without asking directions but unfortunately my Dad could ring me at even more inconvenient times throughout the day.
Personal admin over with, we then tried to navigate the bowl of spaghetti hoops that is Tokyo’s railway system. There are five or six railway companies with many lines to their name, most of which go to the same location but some deviate for a few stops. Oh, and to make things easier, there are express, local and a sort of half-hearted semi express trains; these all occasionally miss out stops presumably when there is a slight breeze in the air or when the train driver wants to get home for some sushi. It’s also written in Japanese, a language which appears like someone was playing tic-tac-toe and got a bit lost along the way. Several missed stops later, we arrived at our apartment – complete with “The Sky Bed” (constructed only because without it the bed would likely comprise the entirety of the room). We found out later that night that supermarkets in Japan serve better food than most English restaurants, and so we slept soundly through the altitude sickness exerted by “The Sky Bed”.
The next day, apart from falling nearly eight foot from “The Sky Bed”, an exuberant Phoebe dragged Calum (our stray friend who apparently got India and Japan confused when flights were being booked) and myself out to Ikebukuro. The sensory overload of high pitched music, neon signs and the feeling of five hundred people brushing past my shoulder every few seconds was enough to send us into a building for cover. Alas, this turned out to be even worse as it was a Japanese arcade. Arcades in Japan are narrow, multi-storey buildings with about 200 prize grabber machines on each level (one of which a Japanese man had plugged in about 10,000 yen to get some naked lady on a towel – he seemed less than bothered by our incredulous stares, it almost spurred him on). There was a horse racing machine where you could buy a horse, feed it beer, watch its overall condition and then set it off in a race on a screen about twice the size of our apartment. It is this, along with the fact that every time that I go into a supermarket, I seem to have a chance of winning some sticker or packet of sweets, that has made me feel that Japanese people like to gamble.
It’s cherry blossoms in Japan. I know this because every supermarket and restaurant is coated in pink-flowered signs everywhere. The best bit about this is that everyone gets drunk in parks under the pretence of “flower watching”. We were down with this activity – the beer actually tastes good unlike the car crash of a beverage that Bintang beer is, and we had been introduced to Sake. Our initial excitement of Sake had ended after finding out that the giant 70 on the front of the can referred to the quality and not the alcohol content, though it was passable and lots of business men appeared to be tripping up over themselves after drinking lots of it so it couldn’t be all bad. The idea of an activity where you could sit on a tarpaulin snacking all day appealed to my companions and so we visited a few different parks during this time. I can report that they all pretty much looked the same after a bottle of sake.
Deciding, foolishly, that we could deal with more crowds, we decided to take a quick detour to Shibuya; home of a road and the fourth busiest train station in the world. After correlating a meet up plan which involved working out which of the 18 exits would be easiest to find (McDonalds was the landmark), we then walked out into a crossing where a pavement slowly begins to fill with people hopping from foot to foot until a green light is shown whereby a primitive kind of instinct causes people to cross the road with the dogmatic nature of a rhino. After plucking a blubbering Phoebe from a sharply dressed shoe stamping, we went and had fish on a Scalextric (conveyor belt… same thing). It was all fun and games until someone ordered what looked like prawn vomit on rice which was the food to send Calum (about as culinary adventurous as a goldfish) back to vegetarianism. In fairness, with phrases such as “fried hormone” and “cod sperm sack” flying around in the few English words on menus, it is an inevitable truth that we would all begin to gravitate towards McDonalds and start pawing at the doors. We felt this was enough Tokyo for one week, and with our regurgitated fish food and rice wine lined bellies, we took the demi-semi-hemi express train back to the sanctitude of “The Sky Bed”.
From Alec, Phoebe, Calum and a rather naive little pufferfish.
We are the first to admit that while Flores was nice (it wasn’t), we were quite (understatement) glad to be out of there. We even left a bit early to scout out the Australian Ibiza that is the island of Bali before my family and friends got there. Exploring Ubud was nice until Flores’ last revenge struck me down with Dengue Fever. I’m a brave man who never makes a fuss about anything (lol) but unfortunately three days bed-ridden with fever and then a rather unattractive rash spreading through my body (finishing off with my fingers and toes, sort of like a final “fuck you” from the mosquitoes) was not my idea of relaxation. Weaker men would have fallen, yet I, a titan of a fellow, got better in a few days with a combination of pills and greasy noodles.
Aside from dermatologically afflicting illnesses, Bali was the holiday equivalent of that annoying little brat at family event who constantly prods you in the back and speaks in a whiney voice. Ubud is a small town up north with cutesy little shops and more vegan products than in a Greenpeace convention. Wandering around with everyone was nice; catching up; recovering from Dengue; and trying to spot how many people could practically fit on a motorbike (the answer is four). Watching our friend James, a fully trained accountant, haggle for a small picture was an interesting new hobby as without access to an Excel spreadsheet, he seemed completely bemused by the fact that a price tag was a variable (and biased against how gullible/naive you look).
A shaking rudely awakened us the following morning as a minor earthquake hit the peaceful villa we were staying at. Thought I’d let everyone know, roughly three weeks later, that we are all fine. Calum, my second of two friends, however seems to have developed a strange aversion to morning toilet time after that day. After recovering from this, a day trip left up to our new friend, our taxi driver – let’s call him Len, had us squished in the back of his car for two hours to reach a waterfall. Here, we helped him get a selfie of himself, watched my Mum and Phoebe visibly recoil at the toilet being a small plunge pool and sat in lukewarm water from which was sourced from the aforementioned squat pool. We then, in a sitcom-esque manner, hopped back into the sardine can of a taxi and drove to Tanah Lot. Tanah lot is a water temple sitting on the coast of Bali which becomes isolated at high tide. As would be expected in a tourist destination in Indonesia, a fringe of mask and magnet selling stalls coat the area like an oil which you have to fight through to see the temple. The temple was a hedgehog of selfie sticks but actually very impressive with the waves washing over the cliffs. Set inside a shallowly sloping cliff came the most entrepreneurial man I feel I had seen. Painted in half-legible black letters was “See the holy snake – 30,000 rp” (2 quid)). There a man was sat, with a box on his lap, apparently showing people his holy snake. Make of this what you will but I am under the strong impression that the man was no herpetologist.
On the saddest side of the metaphorical rusty coin that is Bali lies Kuta. Aside from having decent clubs with possibly the nicest staff I have ever met, the strip is an artificial agglomeration of Starbucks, aggressively looking Indonesian men and rather obese Australian families. Luckily (and unluckily) for us, we had arrived just before Nyepi, the Balinese new year. This was good as lots of giant statues of demons were all over the streets which is everyones idea of a party. The cost of this however, was that the whole island shuts down for a day – airports and roads are closed; all lights have to be dimmed and a rumour has it that sex isn’t even prohibited. Luckily, with a bit of English ingenuity, we decided to leave at midnight the night before, lest we not be able to have a joyful game of Perudo. Unfortunately, the seventh great plague of Bali, drunk Aussies, had a similar brainwave and so the airport stank of kangaroos and empty Bintang bottles. I suppose James, trained accountant, finally working out the currency 15 minutes before we left was a plus?
From Alec (back from the brinks of death), Phoebe (unquietly glad to be heading to Japan), my Mum (still traumatised by the idea of a squatty potty), Graham (Taxi drivers best friend), Marcus (dickhead), James (Trained accountant, man of mystery and purveyor of fine art) and Calum (Forever afraid of the loo).
A wart of a town sits on the side of Mount Kelimutu; it is called Moni. After traipsing up and down, we finally settled into one of the identical “eco-lodges with free wifi”. After finding no wifi and understanding that “eco” means without electricity, we located ourselves in the bar in town. I, the lexical genius, of course took down my dim-witted opponent in a game of scrabble despite such fabulous words as “cat” and “dog” coming from the opposing side (Phoebe).
The sound of mosquitoes combined with three roosters and the haunting sound of a taxi driver awoke us early the next morning to catch a sunrise at Kelimutu. Kelimutu is an area of three tightly-spaced volcanic lakes with vastly different colours. As if this wasn’t “showy” enough, these lakes have learnt a new party trick which is to change colour throughout the day. After my tireless self and a puffing Phoebe arrived, we found the lakes to be a black and a turquoise colour. I would love to tell you about the last lake but a cloud had thoughtfully descended over it, obscuring the view. Bypassing the large amount of noodle and coffee sellers on the descent, the heavens thoughtfully opened on us. To our aid came an angel, in the form of a sinewy van driver with an unhealthy obsession for “Hello Kitty!”, and whisked us down to Moni again. I never thought I would get so close as to a plush cats behind as that day.
Our last bus ride to Maumere was as expected – a painful experience involving the now standard, too-loud music and the usual chicken beneath the seat experience. Maumere had about as much character as a pinecone so we decided to stay at the beach accommodation we had booked. The tsunami a few years back destroyed all of the coral so a coral nursery lies about 20 m off of the shore; a baby moray eel and lots of tiny corals are amongst the inhabitants of this tiny reef. To add to the ecosystem, a breed of mutant crabs being fed a variety of vegetables was happily camped outside of the kitchen area. Unfortunately, these hybrids were unable to stem the tidal wave of mosquitoes which flowed in through the roof of the building. As a further shaker of salt to add to our open wound of a life, the mosquito net we had access to just about covered one arm and half a shoulder. This sort of thing could result in someone getting Dengue Fever…
Apologies for the delay; Flores decided to give me Dengue fever as a kind of last hurrah and then my family came over. Now that I am in the land of the raw fish and pocket wifi, I will attempt to catch up rapidly to bring you all up to date. You lucky ducks…
I’m going to combine Bajawa and Ende into one post. Half a post each is generous for these towns but that’s just in my nature.
We only actually went to Bajawa for a brief hour before being shuttled, via a bus journey which nearly reduced Phoebe to tears, to Ende. We stayed on the outskirts just next to a volcano. Sadly, it didn’t erupt and put us out of our Flores-filled misery but it sat there looking pretty – fair enough. We went to a traditional village (Bena) the next day where a man with a similar complexion to your average handbag tried to flog me a cinnamon stick. I declined, insisting that my travel spice cabinet was too filled with vanilla pods. Failing this, he offered me sheeps teeth; I again told him my dental pouch was already full. Thankfully, that was the extent of his products so we parted ways after that. We were semi-contemplating (we mentioned it once) going up the volcano but the mild drizzle in the air was enough to put us off the five mile hike. Instead I drank coffee which didn’t resemble mud in a cup (“Flores Coffee, our speciality”) and watched thunderstorms from the safety of a wooden hut.
The trip to Ende was in a car, not a bus for a blessed fucking change. Unfortunately, this journey did not alter our opinion that all the shit music in the world apparently concentrates on this small island in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, I have never seen more saliva come out of a man’s mouth than the man in the front of the taxi that day – not a minute went by without a nice spit out of the car window.
Walking through the streets of Ende returned us to the normal procedure of Flores with a thunk. People asking the incessant question, “Where are you going?” and yelling “Hey Mister!” (the latter audience mostly being Phoebe) got old quick. A welcome find was a restaurant selling free range chicken. This may seem trivial, yet on an island where the term “customer service” is synonymous with “daylight robbery”, it was enough to make our hearts burst with joy. We also went to a beach where blue rocks just wash up on a black sand shore. Unfortunately this won’t last much longer; with the foresight of a bat, the locals are sending all of the rocks away to countries demanding them for ornamental gardens. The result is that large mounds of beautiful blue rocks are piled at the side of the road whilst the beach acts as a rubbish tip. I can tell you honestly at this stage, Flores was beginning to whittle us down like an annoying toddler nibbling at our ankles (with rabies).
As this is our gap yah and we are finding ourselves (plus Phoebe is testing out career options), we decided that staying in a convent would be a good idea. I, for one, was not going to make a Habit of this behaviour (lol. I’ve still got it…). Upon entry to our residence, Atilla the Nun warned us of the 9pm curfew in place; luckily this would not be a problem as the resetting of my body clock often had me slipping into a coma at the ripe hour of 7pm. She also dictated that breakfast would be served from 6-8am. As Phoebes cries of anguish filled the room at being dragged from the warmth of a duvet at such an early hour, I graciously took the news, thinking we could fill a whole day seeing the sights of Ruteng (the naivety of my childish mind still baffles me).
We left the convent; walked down the street; looked behind us and found that there was a small classroom of kids following us. Now I know that I take to kids like a duck takes to treacle; Phoebe though, on the other hand, former teaching in training, should be far better at dealing with the nonsense they spout. In reality, she recoiled back in horror at the sight of the little munchkins. A particularly bold one, named Arhys, offered to show us around town so he could practise his English. After a few seconds of trying desperately to come up with an excuse (“I have a dentist appointment?” “The Nun’s curfew is now 11am?!”), we glumly resigned ourselves to his tour. We didn’t see much except a dried fish market, a staple in every town in Indonesia like a pointless newsagents in England is, but he offered us to see the Leang Bua (Homo Florensis) cave, an activity we had bookmarked in our heavy schedule to evade the youth of Ruteng. We mumbled something about dentist appointments and retreated to our convent. We inquired of Atilla whether we could get a driver to see the caves (“we don’t need a guide, we said”). She asked us to wait. We did. Lo and behold, Arhys, a bane of my short and pitiful existence, strides in and plonks himself across from us.
“Shall we go to the caves?” The heathen exclaimed.
Fresh out of excuses and under the stern gaze of Nungadin, we left with him. The Leang Bua cave was packed with archaeologists (some from the US), only the natives dig here which is a nice touch- we felt a pang of homesickness when we saw a tea break in progress. Along with the famous pygmy people of Flores, the cave contains the remains of Stegadon (big elephants), ancient Komodo Dragons (big lizards) and giant storks (big pigeons). After zoning out for a while in this cave, the whiny, tortuous noise of Arhys’ voice filled the still air.
“I am hengry… Can we leave”
As Phoebe rounded, fists ‘a flying, I, the constant kindness in this travelling duo, allowed him to show us the second of two slightly worthwhile things in Ruteng to do – the spiderweb rice fields.
They were indeed rice fields which can be seen from a litter-strewn, grassy hill. Upon descent of this hill, a man straight from Deliverance (the one with the duelling banjos), demanded a 30,000 Rp sum. While this is only $3, the little cretin just sat in a makeshift hut and charged people to go up a hill – no bins, no toilets, nothing. I also observed that a few Malaysian tourists fluttered by us for free. I bartered it down. I’m not ashamed. Everywhere in Flores is cheap, but everything is slightly less cheap for a foreigner, despite the fact that we earn a fraction of the money most of the native tourists’ lucrative salaries are.
We awoke early the next morning to nun’s singing – we did find ourselves on our gap year, what we found was grumpy English people – and had a breakfast of salted eggs and stale bread. We were a bit exhausted of fighting everything, and what with Sister Ballista looking at us, we just ate our food and left Ruteng, avoiding children like a bad case of zits.
Labuan Bajo is a little port town on Flores, Indonesia that acts as a gateway to the Komodo Islands. Obviously dragons like mediterranean cuisine as I have never seen such an accumulation of Italian restaurants in Asia. However, after being used to such luxuries as pavements and covered sewers, it was strange, yet oddly reassuring, to come back to a place where we could afford something (pizza) more substantial than a watery broth.
I naively promoted Phoebe, straight from the fray as chief photographer and chief restaurant picker, to temporary-seasonal assistant accommodation picker for one time only. I quickly realised how much of a mistake this was when I found out we were over an hour walk to the city centre – I’m not kidding when I say our neighbours awee four goats and a rainforest. As such, we were heavily reliant on the hotel shuttle – an enigmatic service which operates on the whim of a long haired man called JoJo; the efficiency of this service seems to derive from the square root of an early morning multiplied by how many Bintang beers we had bought him the night before.
We came to Komodo to do two things: refresh our aqua lungs by scuba-diving again and see an oversized reptile in its natural environment. We decided to do the former first. It seems every other premise is a dive shop with a gaggle of laid-back, dreadlocked types lounging at the entrance so we did not find it too arduous to find one. The diving around Komodo has more currents than a trail mix but the marine life made up for this (and some). Particular highlights were reef manta rays – take a sting ray, click the expand button and voila, there is a manta ray – a large group of different reef sharks, lots of turtles doing nothing and a particularly disgruntled frogfish (the marine equivalent of a pile of goo). On a sidenote, all the Manta Rays are named – the one that got closest to us was called Winnie the Pooh (kudos to the namer). We were even graced by the presence of a pod of dolphins, presumably they saw how well I was diving and thought I was one of their own. Disappointed, they swam off.
Second on the list! Whilst in Komodo, we felt we should actually see the dragons of the same name. In order to see these mythical reptiles, we had to book a tour with one of the reputable looking shitholes (interspersed between the hippie types) that adorn the streets of Labuan Bajo. After much deliberation, we decided to go with Komodo Explorer, and not Komodo Fun, Komodo Enterprise or Komodo Adventure. Needless to say, it didn’t matter which suffix we had plumped for, we all inevitably ended up in the same boat, literally and metaphorically. Thus, our story continues with nine new intrepid explorers: a young German couple straight from the set of High School Musical, an old German couple straight from the set canteen of High School Lunch, three Asian woman propping up the Eastern Instagram market and another British couple, looking similarly bewildered and moody to us. Our first destination was Padar Island – an island with three different coloured beaches. Our lecherous old boat driver, stained shirt coming off briefly to treat us all, had developed a rather disturbing crush on the three asian women. With more pep than an excitable puppy, he dragged each of them up the hill ready for the 18,000,000 photos to be placed on instagram later that hour. I believe there was a grunt to the remaining, less desired, boat mates about being back in an hour, but it was probably just gas. Upon our punctual return, our Asian trio + one troll had yet to return (they actually turned up half hour later all tuckered out with their edgy instagram piccys). Next, we had the piece de resistance of the day, the fat lump of lards that are Komodo Dragons. Oh how we wished we would be lucky enough to see one. Don’t worry. They are everywhere. Sleeping. In fairness, when one of the rangers went to lower the goat on a rope they had tied up in honour of the Forest Commission officer of Indonesia (and me), the fat geckos did run pretty fast then looking all scary and whatnot. Luckily the rangers had … “a gun?!”, “killer spray?!”,”a lightsaber” – hush again, dear listener for he had something better – a stick.
We then went snorkelling and saw manta rays again (yawn) and a beach that is pink due to the deaths of the worlds corals. Instagram girls loved it; it matched their shoes.
ps. Troll went home disappointed; it appears the three girls were engaged to themselves. Fat German couple stared hungrily at my lunch; thin german couple were about as bland as rice pudding for the day and the other British couple were ok.