Every now and then along comes a day that is simply magical. Today was one.
Yesterday we arrived at the island of Komodo. Except for a pre-existing village, the entire island is a national park, because of the presence of the Komodo Dragon. The landscape is beautiful. If you gaze above the water, the beach, and the coconut palms, it looks rather like Arizona.
We were up by 6am to head ashore for our park tour. We were told if we arrived by 6:45 it was almost guaranteed that we would see dragons. We did, and they are pretty cool. We were warned to stick together, and there was always a guide at the front and the back of the group. We got to hear the story of a tourist ten years ago that left the group to take pictures, and after a week of searching only his camera and eye glasses were found, so it is assumed he was eaten by dragons. These giant reptiles mostly eat deer. They are somewhat like crocodiles — they hide and wait, and when an animal comes within range, they have a sudden attack. Their bite causes infection; they stalk the bitten prey until it succumbs to the infection. Mothers will eat their own hatchlings, too…
After our hike we all bought drinks and relaxed. I was touched by a comment made to me by a fellow BPOer. He said: you know that many of the extremist Muslims come from Indonesia? But I wish every American could come visit this area. The people have been so wonderful; it would change Americans ideas about what it means to be Muslim.
Meanwhile Jesse started to mix it up with some of the locals. Next thing you know he is arm wrestling, and some wagers are being placed! He did well, winning a little cash and impressing the locals with his strength.
Back at the boat we relaxed, and then mid-afternoon we decided to go snorkeling. Along with several others from the BPO we took the dinghy to Pink Beach, which we had passed on our approach yesterday. This turned out to be one of the best, perhaps THE best, snorkeling of this voyage! The water was clear; there was an amazing variety of fish; and the colors and textures of the coral were mind boggling.
Back to the boat, and now we had to hurry because Tim had arranged with one of the guides to meet at 5pm, and he would take us to the village for dinner. There are no restaurants in the village, but Abdullah said he could provide dinner at his house. The village itself is fascinating. The houses are mostly on stilts, which could protect them from a storm surge, but also protects them from dragons. Abdullah’s house is on the edge of town, bordering the park, and he says it is a common sight to see dragons there.
Walking down the narrow “Main Street” path, Abdullah stopped and asked if we wanted chicken for dinner. Sure, why not? Then we need to come up with the cash to buy the chicken. We did, and we got to briefly meet our food. Then on to a nicer-than-average house, that our guide said was not his, but it belongs to his family, and we could have coffee and tea there. Apparently one can also rent accommodation space there.
While sipping and waiting for Abdullah to take the chicken to his wife so she could start cooking, up the path comes the only white person we’ve seen. She says hello, and Tim gets into a conversation with her, and she comes up to join us. Nina is from Holland, she is a nurse, and she has lived on the island of Flores for several years. She also works for an NGO that matches up organizations looking to do projects with the local needs. We have a constant stream of questions for her. We learn, for example, that there is a desalination facility almost next door, with a solar array and batteries. Except it stopped working after less than a year, and the charitable organization that built it is done with their project, no longer around to fix it. Nina has found a Belgian group that has the expertise to fix it and that is looking for a project… In the meantime the villagers carry water from about six kilometers away.
We learn that another group built public toilets for the village, with a proper septic system. Except that the system requires a pump that is no longer working. I’m not sure if this is a question of “appropriate technology” or effective project management and follow-up.
Tim asked a lot about the government. Nina “doesn’t believe in governments — they come and go, and the politicians get rich and nothing changes for the poor.” We are in a remote part of Indonesia (a country with many remote parts), and very few resources are sent this way. What the village needs, she says, is a fast boat to carry sick or injured people to a hospital. Fives mothers died in recent months from complications in/after childbirth. And sometimes a person gets bitten by a dragon, and needs urgent care for the infection. Tim asks about the government providing such a boat, and she laughs. No chance.
As it starts to get dark, a generator cranks up, and our host fiddles with some wires until lights come on. There is electricity from 7pm to 11pm, usually.
Abdullah returns and invites us to follow him to his house. We sit on a rug over a section of the bare wood floor. Adjacent is a mattress (probably filled with kapok, as there are local kapok trees). No glass in the windows, of course, but pretty fabric that can at least keep out the sun, perhaps some of the rain. Corrugated metal roof. The whole structure sways on its stilts when we move. Tim asks in the course of conversation whether the house includes a toilet. Abdullah laughs; a toilet is a huge expense; they have the beach.
Abdullah’s wife is cooking in the next room. Cooking with a wood fire! Gas is too expensive. She is not introduced, and she does not sit or eat with us. She brings food, she nods when we thank her, she is happy to pose for a photo with her husband and one year old daughter. The food is superb! Well, the chicken is tough. But the flavors are delicious and there are several dishes and the quantity is over the top. We eat sitting on the rug on the floor. At some point they turn on their television for their two kids and a neighbor kid. They get one channel, and they have to pay for it. I’m a little surprised that they would allocate money to TV, but when I see the kids passed out in front of it, I can see that it might be valuable.
We also learn that the relatively hefty fees we all paid to the national park go almost entirely to Jakarta. The guide gets about $3 for the entire tour — probably not quite 1% of the fees collected from us today. Nothing goes to help the village, except of course for providing these job opportunities.
I think all three of us came away wishing we could fix the broken down projects, and help Abdullah and the village as a whole. We did what we readily could — we paid what we think was a big amount for our meal. Abdullah would not say any amount the he expected; it was up to us. We (gladly) paid as much as we have paid in any restaurant, plus we had already bought the chicken.
Abdullah escorted us back to our dinghy. The long ride home was beautiful, the stars brighter than we have seen before in Indonesia, and the water was calm and phosphorescent. What to make of it all…? Is there more we can do for these people besides pay generously for dinner? Is the way to leave the world better than we found it to become a Nina — to live in an emerging area for years and help with sustainable development? Is there a way to be useful from our distant homes?