Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Indonesia: The Dragons of Komodo Island and Daily Life on Lombok Island

I am happy to report that we are aware of no one who became lunch for any of the Komodo dragons!  That important detail out of the way, more on Komodo dragons later...

Our journey around this amazing culturally and physically diverse planet is exactly half over now.  Friday was Day 56 of our 112 day cruise and every single place we will visit will be exciting and new to us from now until we reach Athens in early April, just as everything was new from when our plane touched down in West Palm Beach on New Year’s Day (which seems so long ago now) until we arrived on the shores of Tahiti.

I had never focused attention on the importance of the area in which we are now sailing between northern Australia and Indonesia in terms of its impact on weather and climate, geology, and of course, culture. However our speakers now on board are helping those who are availing themselves of the opportunity to learn to understand the important role this area is contributing to our Earth.

Reluctantly, we are leaving Australia, a country which Barb and I have grown to love on our two trips there.  If it weren’t for the fact that the United States is home and always will be, I think we could both live in Australia and love it. Australia’s people are warm and friendly; the cities are modern and dynamic; the culture from “Waltzing Matilda” to the Aboriginal art and music of the haunting didgeridoo is fascinating; and the indigenous animals of Australia seem to be favorites of many Americans (though we prefer close encounters with kangaroos and koalas to those crocodiles we saw near Cairns!).

We have sailed over the Great Barrier Reef, one of UNESCO’s world preservation sites without being able to see the wonders below us.  We visited a reef and “snorkeled” (I use the term loosely) on our 2009 trip to Cairns so we have a small idea of these wonders of the ocean.  What I had not known was that these warm waters, which do help promote the life below the seas, also foster the development of cyclonic action in this part of the world.  The water is shallow in many areas and is incredibly warm so that makes cyclones more likely here.  For those of us in the Northern US, water temperatures of 86 degrees such as the captain reported on Saturday, seem unheard of.

As we traveled down South America and across the Pacific, we had primarily experts on culture and history.  Now we have two fascinating scientists on board.  One, a Canadian biology professor, Dr. George Sranko,  who has studied and lived in Australia has spoken on the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef as well as Australia’s animals. He also gave a full lecture on the fascinating (but definitely not cuddly) Komodo dragons which are found only on Komodo Island and very limited areas of nearby islands of Indonesia.  He spoke too, of the evolution of the human species which included a weaker branch of “hobbits”, much smaller than our typical humans and with smaller brains which has probably gone extinct.  However, he indicated that there is some evidence that there may yet be a few surviving in unexplored, undeveloped areas in parts of Indonesia to this day.  Fascinating.

The other professor, Dr. Greg Ojakangas, who graduated from Cal Tech, focuses on physical science especially astronomy and geology.  During the past year, Barb and I have seemed to be visiting areas of unusual volcanic action, first with Iceland last summer and now with the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and locations of volcanic events in Indonesia. From the mighty Krakatoa Volcano of the 1880s to other recent eruptions, great Pacific earthquakes that led to the tsunamis that devastated American Samoa in September 2009, less than 3 weeks before we visited there and the unsettling earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand and elsewhere in New Zealand, to volcanic eruptions on the planets of our solar system, he addressed the impact of these geologic actions on our planet and universe.  This is a fascinating, educational adventure which makes me think so frequently of the times I have subbed in Science at Lincoln-Way, showing DVDs that covered a number of the topics in this long, fascinating “field trip” we  are taking!  If only these students could have the opportunity to see these places.

After four days at sea, and navigating through the Great Barrier Reef as well as the waters between Australia and Indonesia, we reached Komodo Island and the Komodo National Park. One could sense the excitement of the Indonesian crew as they had a chance to see their home country after so many months at sea for so many of them.  Some had never visited Komodo Island as there are relatively few humans but about 1250 of the Komodo dragons on the island.  As we sailed into Strait of Lintah and Slawi Bay where we dropped anchor, this hilly but green island was shrouded in clouds.  I saw a cabin steward that I don’t know who said to me, “Welcome to my country!”  I responded that I was happy to be here but asked him to do something about the rain.  He told me, “It won’t rain,” (and it didn’t)!  We were told that since there had been a lot of rain recently, paths would be muddy and to wear appropriate shoes.

We met Al for our Komodo Island Trek shore excursion, took the easy tender ride to the island and met our walking tour at noon.  The rules and warnings of the park explained, our Indonesian guide and two park rangers set off with our group to see if we could spot any of the dragons.  The two rangers as well as the guide had long sticks with a forked tip in case they were needed to discourage the dragons from undue interest in their human visitors.

Komodo Island has a few trees, mostly palms, some of which protrude from hilltops like match sticks.  The dragons are indigenous to the island as well as small pockets of them in neighboring islands.  These monitor lizards can grow to 9 feet in length and up to 300 pounds and can live up to 50 or 60 years.  Their jaws are powerful and teeth are as sharp as razors.  There is a venom in their saliva that infects and disables prey.  As carnivores, they are not fussy, and while they prefer the delicious (to them) aroma of rotting carrion, a human would do in a pinch too, so we were told to stay on the paths and never to approach a Komodo Dragon.  Furthermore, they even eat Komodo Dragon eggs as well as young Komodo Dragons.  The young Dragons can climb trees to escape hungry adult predators of their own species.  Komodo Dragons can run at a speed of up to 12 miles an hour so the chance of outrunning a Komodo Dragon would be remote.  They usually sleep during the day and seldom bother humans if they are not provoked, but if the animal crouches and holds its head low and cocked, it is in an attack position so people need to walk, not run, in the other direction. 

No sooner had we started our walk, than we saw others watching something on the path.  It was a sleepy Komodo Dragon that kept one eye on us as we walked off the path and around it at a safe distance.  We had seen our first Komodo Dragon!  A few minutes later in a clearing, there were four Komodo Dragons all together as the tourists busily snapped photos.  Someone noticed some movement behind us and it was a young (our tour guide estimated five years old) Dragon that came down a tree.  Foliage and other trees made photos difficult but I could see its reptilian forked tongue shooting out of its mouth from time to time.  Then one of the adults saw the young Dragon as possible lunch and took interest in it.  Since we were between the adults and the juvenile, our guide ordered us to move slowly away.  Quickly the young Dragon climbed a tree to safety.  However, Barb noticed a couple from our group move toward the slowly moving adult to snap better pictures.  Apparently some felt a good picture was worth the life threatening action but the national park rangers moved the humans away and drove the animals back without incident.   We did hear that one Dragon began moving toward another group earlier in the day and it took some effort on the part of the rangers to stabilize the situation.  Comforting or not, the park is relatively safe.  The last human victim apparently was a tourist who went missing twenty years ago.

It appears that everyone that wanted had the opportunity to observe Komodo Dragons in their native habitat.  That included many of the Indonesian crew who were seeing Komodo Dragons for the first time themselves.  Only those with booked shore excursions were allowed off the ship, so a crew shore excursion was offered for them to see the Dragons.

After crocodiles of northern Queensland, Australia, we have now seen the Komodo Dragons of Indonesia.  The Komodo stop put us into Asia, our 5th continent on our seven continent cruise and was the first of many Asian ports on our lengthy visit to Asia.

After sailing all night, we arrived at Lombok Island and the port of Lembar which also required a tender to shore.  When our alarm went off, Barb stated that she was extremely tired and that she just didn’t feel well, so she had to cancel her shore excursion.  So I did it without Barb and thus, the longer blog since she would have written a separate blog on our second port in Indonesia.  Instead, I am combining both Komodo and Lombok into one blog post.  The day was not beginning well since when our packed tender was filled and the ignition was turned on, the motor wouldn’t start!  I had visions of taking everyone off and bringing in a new tender which probably would have taken at least a half hour, but one of the enterprising  crew members got a  hammer, hit something, and off we went.

We had planned Sasak Native Village and Kuta Beach shore excursion which would portray the daily life of typical Indonesians.  In one of her lecturers, Travel Guide Barbara Haenni had commented that Indonesia had the fourth largest population in the world, behind China, India, and the United States.  I had wondered about Russia, assuming that even after the breakup of the old Soviet Union, Russia would still have more than Indonesia with its population of about 250 million.  Wrong!  I had to check Russia’s population which is only 138 million.  About 3.5 million people live on the small Lombok Island and it seemed like the entire population was where we were.

Lombok was much more everyday Indonesia than Komodo as we watched people going about their daily routines.  As we pulled away and began to see homes, farms, and businesses,  Immediately noticeable on the roads were many motorbikes, motor scooters, trucks, some horse drawn carts, but almost no private cars.  I was struck by the overwhelming poverty of the vast majority of the people.   Knowing our dining and cabin steward from this and other cruises on Holland America, our contact with Indonesians has been with these kinds of people who are consummate professionals in their jobs and who speak English exceptionally well.  Many of the people we saw were selling their wares along the road and wherever they knew tour buses would be found.  So much, frankly, represented items that I had no use for, much less need!  I didn’t need cheap watches, bracelets, pearls, or scarves.  Yet these people need to sell them to earn a little money for their families and one feels guilty not buying anything.  Once in awhile we have to give in a buy something we don’t need just to help support a few people economically.  A perfect example:  on Komodo Island big sellers are wooden Komodo Dragons of varying sizes and poses.  By the time I had tendered back to the ship, my bargained $8 Komodo Dragon’s tail had broken off! Oh well.  There are things more important than my small Komodo Dragon souvenir and the $8 the vendor earned probably was needed by the person who sold it.

Our first stop was in a village called Banyu Mulek where pottery is made.  We saw how it was done and then we boarded a traditional horse cart called a cimodo in groups of three or four for a short ride through the village.  I joined two other people who were taking this shore excursion as a solo – one a lady, Sondra, a retired lawyer from Miami, whom we met when we attended a Murder Mystery Dinner event a few nights ago, and the other a man I didn’t know.  Along the procession of carts, many children, women, and a few men waved at us as did some school children who happened to be out for their school recess.  At the end of the cimodo ride, we returned to a large barn where lots of pottery items were being sold.  Bargaining over price was intense with some making purchases and others unable to agree on a price.

Next we stopped at Sukarana where we saw several women showing off their skills in weaving brightly colored fabric.  Much of the fabric was being sold and once again, there was bargaining over price for these shawls, wraps, small tapestries and other woven products.  One of the highlights of the shore excursion was a stop at a traditional Indonesian village of Sade-Rambitan.  We walked through the village as once again, people urged us to purchase what they had to sell.  Houses were close together and people were out everywhere.  For some, clothing was minimal and for a few of the very youngest children, it was non-existent.  The floors of homes were clay, dung, and straw.  Roofs were thatched, similar to what one might see in a few places in England.  The village “was a nice place to visit, but ...”

Our guide commented that malaria has been virtually eradicated in Indonesia in part because of a concerted and successful effort on the part of government to rid the dreaded disease from Indonesia.  He also indicated that there is a major effort to improve educational standards and to raise literacy rates.  It seemed that the best dressed Indonesians were children at school as they all were required to wear the same style uniforms to reduce the class envy at school.  A very interesting fact he stated was that in Indonesia, a nation with a large Muslim population, the people are far more tolerant of religious differences than in some other Muslim countries.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and some Christians seem to coexist well.  I was impressed with the smiling, friendly faces of those we passed along the way.

For the first time ever, I visited a place where rice was grown.  I saw the rice paddies with many people working in the fields, some wearing the traditional conical hats, others spreading the rice out for drying, and some people, mostly women, carrying what seemed to be fairly heavy items on their heads.  I know from basic study and from conversations with our dining steward, Yohat, that Indonesians love their rice.  They don’t care for our type of food, so once we asked Yohat what he had for breakfast. “Rice” was his one word response.  So what about lunch?  “Rice.”  And dinner?  Again, “Rice”.  No wonder we saw so many people working in the fields of rice.  On employment, our guide told us that traditional forms of work are continued even though it would be more efficient to use machines.  Thus, horses and water buffalo are used rather than machines because if they were used, many people who so desperately need jobs would be replaced and poverty would be even higher.  (Our guide on this excursion, by the way¸ was a fifth year graduate student studying Sociology and who had excellent English vocabulary – as does the Indonesian crew on Holland America.)

Our final stop was at a Novotel resort for a sumptuous buffet lunch of Indonesian food.  Once again as in Cairns, the rains came during lunch when we were under cover.  It didn’t last long and some ventured to the beach near the hotel for a brief swim.  (At dinner, our dining steward, Yohat, told me that he and his cousin had set up the phone system for that hotel back in the mid 1990s.) After lunch, we made our way back through the interesting countryside to the ship, ending our brief introduction to Indonesia.

As the home country for so many Indonesian crew, many family and friends of crew came to Lombak Island from their homes to have a very brief reunion with those who are away for such extended times.  We could see the excitement in the faces of Indonesians who were seeing people who were so important to them.  Barb said she went up to the Lido (cafeteria) today and saw a number of family members with their Holland America family and friends.  She said it was fun to watch the dedicated Holland America crew glow with pride as they showed the ship to their families as well as introducing their families, especially their children, to their friends and guests.  We had told our two cabin stewards, Evan and DJ, to skip cleaning our room today so they could finish work early and have more time with those who came to see them.  They thanked us and said a few other passengers, including Al, had also put out “privacy please” notices for the purpose of allowing cabin stewards to skip cleaning their rooms for the morning.  Evan and DJ, as well as Herfan, one of our favorite previous dining stewards, and Yohat all had wonderful days on shore.  DJ told us he was so happy to be home in Indonesia for the first time in months that he wanted to cry when he stepped on Indonesian soil again.  Most of us can relate to that as well.

Our Indonesian experience over, we head to our next port, Hong Kong!


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