A Day on El Camino

Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!

So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.

For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:

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In the cases where we have a private room to ourselves or everyone else in our dorm is waking up at the same time as we are, the lights go on and we begin getting dressed and packing our things.
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Occasionally, you’ll have one or two people still sleeping at six, in which case we gather all of our things in the dark and move them to the common area of the albergue to pack up.
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To make things easier (and more water resistant) we have all of our stuff separated into plastic bags. So, in the morning, we just have to put the bags in our backpack and we’re ready to go.
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Sometimes we’ll have breakfast in the albergue…
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…or on the road while watching the sunrise…
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…or, if we’re lucky enough to have a café open at the ungodly Spanish hour of 7 a.m., go there for breakfast.
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Most days begin under the stars, which means poor visibility and frequent second-guessing ourselves about whether we’re going in the right direction or not.
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Though we’ve learned that if we keep the brightening horizon on our right, that means we’re going north and in the right direction.
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Our favorite part of the day is always at dawn, when the scenery is at its most beautiful and the temperature at its coolest.
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A hilltop village at sunrise.
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We’ve also been delighted at times to find a ruin or two sitting on the horizon as the sun comes up; like this castle…
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…or this Roman bridge, which we unquestioningly made a detour to explore.
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After sunrise, it’s business as usual, trying to get into the next town as early as possible so the brutal heat of the midday sun doesn’t turn our trek into a trudge.
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In the days when we have longer walks we’ll stop in a shady patch for a picnic lunch, but usually we make it into the next town around noon and have lunch there.
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After getting our pilgrim credentials stamped and paying the albergue’s fee, which for us has ranged anywhere from free (though they ask for a donation if you have the means) to 15€ a night, we unload our bags, grab a bed, and get showered.
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Then we wash our offensively stinky clothes…
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…and hang them up…
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…before finally getting off our feet!
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To wile away the afternoon, we may work on a hobby like writing or editing pictures.
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If we don’t feel like working on a hobby, we will explore the village or city we are staying in for the night. The picture above is from Caceres, one of our favorite places we have explored so far.
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And cards are almost always played.
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Then, once supermarkets open back up after siesta, we will go get our groceries for dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day.
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Then we cook…
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…eat…
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…and almost always enjoy a drink together before ending the day around 9:00 or 9:30 when most pilgrims, including these ones, head to bed.

 

La Vía de la Plata – A Week in Photos

“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
W.H. Davies

One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.

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Outside the cathedral in Sevilla, our starting point for La Via de la Plata
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Spotting our first of what would be many yellow arrows pointing us towards Santiago de Compostela.
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Having a picnic lunch outside of Italica, an ancient Roman ruins site that has recently gained fame for being used as a shooting location for Game of Thrones.

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An olive orchard
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An old watchtower sitting over the crest of a meadowed hill

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For most of the walk, we’ve enjoyed as our companion an unending supply of beautiful natural scenery
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The symbol of El Camino. All of the lines in the shell represent the different routes one can take to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela.
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The view from our albergue over Castilblanco de los Arroyos, one of the villages we stopped in
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Many of our days have begun at a village cafe eating tostada con tomate and sipping on a mug of tea. This morning came before our first trying day on El Camino, an 18-mile trek over hilly terrain to Almadén de la Plata.

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Checking out an old, ruined house along the way.
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A steep, seemingly endless hill is not what you want to see at the end of an 18-mile day, but we conquered it nonetheless.
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A site for sore feet.

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Golden fields at dawn have been a consistent part of our walk. We’re hoping it stays that way!
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Some friendly farm dogs we came across

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Exploring the castle in Real de la Jara

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A much deserved beer along the way
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Occasionally the scenery is not the greatest…
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…but it can change quickly.

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We began seeing a bunch of these small flowers that grew out of the ground individually without a stem or leaves.

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Our seventh day took us past fields of grape trees
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Some of them were being harvested
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Exploring the town of Zafra

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Mt. Everest

Scaling Mt. Everest was a cinch. That is, when we were moving up the behemoth mountain’s cragged, snow-packed slopes towards its icy peak with our eyes…not our feet. We were, after all, on the Tibetan side of the tallest point in the world, where, unlike in Nepal, amateur mountaineers are not granted the permission to climb Everest; a rule we were glad to heed as we enjoyed the majestic mountain from afar.

After arriving at the tourist base camp (the one for climbers lied further inland and was off limits to us), we were disappointed to find Everest obscured by a stubbornly unmoving wall of clouds – out of which little windows would occasionally open to offer sneak peaks of what the mountain would look like if we were lucky enough for an unobstructed view later in the day. Eager to stretch our legs after the two-day car journey that had brought us there, we toured Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world, and walked around the valley that the base camp sat in. 

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A yak munching on vegetation in front of the monastery. Pigeons also managed to make it up to the camp.

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Effectively stretched, we returned to our accommodation for the night, a yak-wool tent that was one amongst a small city of them at the camp. Sitting like rows of townhouses, the tents advertised everything from coffee to free wi-fi to even karaoke, the latter of which sent erratic, colorful lights and horrible yet confident voices pulsating through the otherwise black and lifeless landscape at night.

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Our tent was run by a kindly young woman, who, apart from offering us unexpectedly delicious meals at an elevation of 5,000 meters, also gave us entertainment in the form of her 1-year old child, a babbling infant intent on offering us hospitality in the form of gifts of random plastic bottles and other spent items she could find lying around the tent. On one occasion, I startled the child by muttering tashi delek (“hello” in Tibetan) to her. As if I was a wolf leaping out of a sheep costume, the girl cartoonishly gasped and staggered backwards in her shock, slapping her mother on the leg in an attempt to alert her to the phenomenon. Apparently foreign guests were not supposed to be able to speak Tibetan. Her mother paid no interest though, instead focusing intently on filling the furnace with a fresh round of yak dung which served to both warm the tent and prepare our meals.

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Inside the tent
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The furnace is on the right and it’s fuel, a bowl of yak dung, is on the left.
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Where we slept. The tent could hold up to 15 people side by side. Luckily it was just us and two others sleeping in the tent that night so we were able to space out.
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Enjoying a cup of yak butter tea. Well, I am anyway.

After playing with the child for a short time, we decided to head back outside to see if the veil over Everest had lifted…it had. We were amazed at how close the mountain looked and felt. In some ways, it seemed more like Everest when it was sitting behind the clouds, our imaginations filling in the dimensions of its fabled magnitude. In full view though, it was still undeniably awe-inspiring, its glowing white slopes shining like a beacon amongst the otherwise monotone and lifeless sea of gray mountains.

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As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped with it and the wind was whipped into even more of a frenzy than earlier in the day, howling loudly as it forcefully pushed through the valley. In the distance, an enclave of prayer wheels spun, creating a soothing melody that countered the angry tones of the wind. Like settling into a seat for a much anticipated theatre production, we found a comfortable place to sit as we took in the show before us. Slowly at first and then quickly after, the stoic Everest began to transform, changing colors from a brilliant white to a pale yellow before finally settling on a rosy pink, the last role it would play before the curtains were drawn as the sun sank below the horizon and the mountain before us was reduced to a shadowed mass, gradually blending into the the gray and darkened mountains surrounding it.

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Kate walking past the prayer wheels which were spun using the flow of a small stream running underneath.

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More out of a desire for warmth than waning interest in the scenery before us, we returned to our tent. Being at such a high altitude, our attempts at sleep during the night were rather hopeless and we got out of bed the next morning, tired but eager to see Mt. Everest one last time before beginning the return journey to Lhasa. It didn’t disappoint.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

Qomolangma

Winds whip
furiously
howling
keening.
An assault felt
only by ears and skin.
To the eyes,
nothing is disturbed.
Not the barren brown landscape,
nor the mountain that sits
at its end.
The peak begins
to glow.
Its ethereal white
becomes the blue of a frozen breeze.
After a moment
the edges transform
to a gentle yellow
moving inward
before settling to rose,
casting the valley in shadow.
This ritual has occurred
before time began ticking,
before prayer flags fluttered
and brassy wheels spun,
creating their music in the mossy water.
It will continue long after
time, flags, and wheels have ceased all movement.

Raja Ampat – Underwater

Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.

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There were plenty of beautifully-patterned clams lying on the sea floor
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These ones, always tucked neatly into the crevices of the reef, would close tightly as we swam overtop of them, leaving nothing but a squiggly blue line to mark where their mouth had been.
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This clam was by far the biggest we would see while snorkeling. If we could have swam down next to it, it would have stretched from our waist to the top of our head.
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Apart from giant clams, we would also come across some oversized fish during our time under water. This angel fish, which in this photo is about 20-30 yards away, was bigger than we were…
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…as was each parrotfish in this school, a video of which you can find here.
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We also saw two cuttlefish swimming together, each the size of our torso.
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Here‘s another video of them.

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A brave clown fish peeking out from an anemone.

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Apart from snorkeling around our homestay, we also went on a manta ray-watching tour where we got to swim with several of the graceful creatures that, like so many other things we had seen underwater, were larger than we were.

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On our very last snorkeling outing before leaving Raja Ampat, our underwater camera malfunctioned and we lost all of our pictures from our entire time in Indonesia due to the memory card getting wet. Luckily, after getting back to China, we were able to recover most of the pictures and videos after purchasing a data-recovery system.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Bolbometopon muricatum

Limbs tired,
we’ve been out
for an hour.

We push up
our masks,
pop out
our snorkels.

Go back?

Okay.
But first,
one more look.

Gear back in place,
we duck under.

A herd
of trunkless
elephants
blunders by,
trumpeting silently.

Is my mask fogged?
No.

A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.

They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift

up to shore creating
paradisiacal beaches
with swaying palms and birdsong.

We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
hand dart
past.

The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.

Raja Ampat

If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:

  1. Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
  2. If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
  3. Board a plane for Indonesia
  4. Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
  5. Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
  6. Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
  7. Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
  8. Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
  9. Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
  10. Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
  11. Arrive in paradise

Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.

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The view of our bungalow and island from the ocean

While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia. 

For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.

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Our bungalow and the ocean which lied just steps away

The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay. 

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The inside of our bungalow with our bed covered by a mosquito net
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Our bathroom facilities. We used the red spigot to fill the bin with groundwater, which we would then ladle out to flush the toilet.
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One of our biggest fears before going to Raja Ampat was about what critters and insects would be sharing the bungalow with us. Luckily, this spider, which barely moved an inch during our stay, was the worst we would see. As for the worst we wouldn’t see, one night we woke up to a large thud near the window of our bungalow followed by the scampering of heavy feet and scraping of claws across the floor and walls. As the island is home to large tree lizards (most notably the Varanus indicus–monitor tree lizard), we assumed that that was what it was. To our relief, it was gone by morning.

While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.

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The view from our porch

The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.

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A sampling of the coral lying just off the shore of the homestay
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Schools of fish were a common sight…
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…as were clown fish.
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We even got to see more unique creatures like sharks, giant parrotfish, and this cuttlefish which was about the size of our torso.

So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:

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At dawn we would wake up to the sound of tropical birds cawing from the jungle behind us and waves gently lapping from the ocean in front…
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…and walk out to the beach to catch the sunrise.
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Then we would get some coffee and sip it on our porch…
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…before heading out for a morning snorkeling session.
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Once the tide got too low and the sun too hot to continue snorkeling, we headed back to our bungalow where we awaited the appearance of the green basket that signaled that lunch was ready (the basket covered the food to keep bugs out)
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Enjoying lunch, which sometimes happened alone and other times was in the company of our fellow guests at the homestay
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Afternoons were lazy and usually spent reading books…
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…sipping coffee and eating snacks…
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…and playing mancala on a homemade board comprised of seashells and rocks we found on the beach.
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The coral reef sat so close to the surface of the water that, when the tide was low in the afternoon, it was very difficult to swim overtop of it. So, to know when it was okay to go snorkeling again, we would sit on our porch and wait until the fields of sea grass that sat in front of the coral were no longer visible above the water.
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After snorkeling, we would watch the sunset and eat dinner with the homestay’s other guests before going to bed.

Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:

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On one part of the beach there were dozens of these clinging to the burnt remains of a tree. When we got close to them they would skip across the water, using their tail to propel them.
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In one tide pool we saw this starfish that we thought was an octopus at first because it was writhing around in the water and then quickly tucked itself under a rock once it sensed our presence.
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Every now and then we had to remind ourselves to look up as the trees were often full of surprises as well.

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With no proper waste disposal system, guests in Raja Ampat are encouraged to take all of their garbage with them upon leaving the islands. Only being there a week, this was very easy for us to do. However, there was nothing we could do to stop the collection of plastic on the island’s beaches. Even after collecting all of it one morning, by the afternoon a fresh supply had washed ashore.

Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us. 

After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.

With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.

As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn. 

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Our boat floating through the mangroves after bird watching (it was too dark to capture the trees before it)

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As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential to  traverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.

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The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.

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Our lookout
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Waiting for the bird to arrive, which took around two hours
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Our view through the screen
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While waiting for the bird to appear, we became entranced by a millipede on the ground that we confused for a snake at first due to its size.

Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.

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Even high in the trees above the bird was captivating
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Hiking back through the jungle
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Getting back on the boat

Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.

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The path leading up to the waterfall

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Ancient-looking trees were a common sight in the jungle around the waterfall

Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there. 

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Sam (in the red hat) with our bungalow in the background as we left Batanta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II

Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.

In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
The bird,
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.

Meanwhile,
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.

Kelimutu

When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of “oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.

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To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.

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The grounds of our homestay, surprisingly free of the packs of dogs and puppies that roamed them freely
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Sipping one of what would be many mugs of complimentary coffee outside our room
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Our open-air bathroom…
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…and shower.

Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.

To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.

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As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world. 

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One of the many clouds of mist that would roll of the lakes during our time viewing them
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Despite looking rather hellish and an appropriate place for evil souls to be sent to, this is actually the lake for elderly souls
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The lake in front is for young souls and the lake behind it for evil ones

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With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

A Kelimutu Fairytale

Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.

A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.

Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.

The surface is still
once more.
Waiting.

Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.

Komodo National Park

Mystified by tales of giant creatures roaming on one of the forgotten isles of the Indonesian archipelago, a group of intrepid filmmakers sets sail for the fabled land in hopes of capturing the beasts on film. So goes the plot of King Kong, and, while we most definitely would never have chosen Skull Island as a destination, we were planning to visit the island and creatures that inspired the 1933 classic to see not the oversized ape that starred in the movie, but rather a different giant and ancient creature that sparks fear and fascination: the Komodo dragon. 

To see the dragons we would have to visit one of two islands (Komodo or Rinca) that make up the greater Komodo National Park. Our base for the visit, as there’s no accommodation on the islands themselves, was Labuan Bajo, a rusty port town situated on the westernmost point of Flores, one of more than 17,000 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. The town, as we would discover, was well-accustomed to the tourism scene being a popular stopover for holiday-goers in Bali. Hotels, dive shops, and tour operators crowded the town’s main street among the more surprising establishments like bakeries and Italian restaurants. Along the sidewalks, English-speaking locals functioned as walking advertisements, chatting up any tourist showing even the slightest amount of insecurity in hopes of securing a future client. 

It was in this atmosphere that we discovered that finding a tour for the next day would not be a problem; finding one that fit our needs and budget however, would. After hearing sales pitch after sales pitch and having our requests for a tour be met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” followed by a shamelessly exaggerated price to a disgusted “No!” after which the operator returned to playing games on his phone, we finally settled on a place that neatly fit in the middle of those two responses, a reluctant and almost bothered “Okay” followed by a price estimate that we decided was only slightly ripping us off.

The next morning we were back at the shop which was running a group tour that morning as well. While waiting for our tour guide we met an Australian man who began chatting us up. Well into his fifties if not sixties, he was unapologetically boastful about his newfound relationship with a girl barely in her twenties whom he had met while wandering the streets and had paid heavily to show him around the town. Between sporadic and unnecessary reassurances of her beauty as he pointed a greedy, prizewinning finger towards a shadowy figure under a nearby street lamp, he told us of how he had paid for her to go on the tour with him that day and was in the process of getting her a job back in Australia to take her back home with him. Gathering that he had treaded from jolly vacationer looking for an authentic experience with a local to the much murkier waters of trying to secure a reluctant prostitute, we were quite glad that we wouldn’t be sharing a boat with him that day and hoped the best for the girl.

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Enjoying breakfast at our hotel before the tour

After our guide showed up, and we use the term “guide” very lightly as this came in the form of a high school student who was more ornamental in his accompaniment of us than guide-like, often trailing behind us in a pondering sort of walk that hinted at him thinking whether or not this was really worth getting a day off from school, we made our way to the boat dock past stalls of sleepy-eyed tour operators who clearly hadn’t secured any clients for that day, their heavy eyes trailing us regretfully as we paraded by.

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Our tour guide, who, several times throughout the day, asked for me to take a picture of him and Kate together using my camera which puzzled us since he had his own smartphone. He never asked about the pictures later.

Our boat, wooden and charming in its neon color scheme, was dwarfed by most other boats on the harbor, looking much more equipped to putter across a small pond than brave the testy ocean waters that had forced the harbor to close just a day earlier. As we peered closer at the boat, we found that our captain and his first mate (there was no second mate) were asleep on the deck. After a couple of half-hearted shouts from our guide, they promptly woke up and within minutes we were out on the ocean, beginning our three-hour journey towards Komodo National Park.

After being on the water for a short while and taking note of the pace at which our boat was moving towards the islands in the distance, eternity seemed like a more accurate time estimate than the already lengthy three hours. At times, it appeared we were even moving backwards, our boat losing the battle of progress between itself and the ocean, which swelled with pride as it moved past us and towards the coast. An incessant and deafening rat-a-tat-tat echoed out from the engine, an audial metaphor for the boat’s struggles to push back against the waves. As if the assault on one of our senses wasn’t enough, an inescapable cloud of gasoline fumes encompassed the entire boat for the duration of the journey. And yet, despite these inconveniences, the boat ride, all three hours of it, would end up being one of our favorite parts of the day. The journey was an enjoyable slow, the engine noises and gasoline smells were treated with fondness rather than scrutiny, and the views accompanying us on our trip were at all times breathtaking.

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On the way to Komodo National Park
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Coffee is always on tap in Indonesia, even on the ocean

The scenery, grandiose and expansive, stretched out in the form of oceans and mountains and islands that, oddly enough given their scope, had a miniaturized feel to them. Perhaps what made it appear this way was the almost-artificial looking green that carpeted the smooth island peaks that always seemed to exist in the undefinable gray area between a hill and a mountain. Like the greenery of a toy train set, it appeared almost felt-like and if we could have reached out and touched it, and at times it felt as if we’d be able to easily enough, we imagined it would feel velveteen. In some cases the soft and smooth slopes gently slid into the ocean, disappearing beneath the ever-changing color and texture of the water, and in other cases it’s descent into the water was ended abruptly in the form of a cliff made up of a jagged, craggy rock face that heroically bore the brunt of the waves endlessly crashing into it.

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The gray morning skies made the scenery look even more mysterious and prehistoric

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While this scene and others that the island had to offer were captivating, our attention at times drifted towards the horizon where our eyes played tricks on us again as what we thought to be the faded outline of clouds jutting across the ocean would slowly materialize into mountains as we crept closer to them. Out of one of these mirages came our first stop: Padar Island, famous not for its reptilian inhabitants but for the sweeping views offered from its peaks. 

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The path leading up to Padar Island’s lookout
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Halfway up!

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On the way to Rinca Island

After leaving Padar, we began making our way towards Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons. To visit the park you had to be accompanied by a park ranger and could choose between several hikes around the island varying in length. Our ranger welcomed us and introduced the park with all of the enthusiasm and routine of a theme park ride operator, spewing scripted facts about the island in a monotone, almost robotic fashion. After choosing the longest trek possible in hopes of it increasing our chances of seeing a dragon, the ranger nodded obligingly and took us to our first stop, the rangers shelters, where a worrisome gathering of dragons sat in waiting. Almost sedated looking as they basked in the midday heat, we quickly learned just how terrifying they could be after a loud noise coming from the nearby forest made them spring to life, gargoyles turning to the monsters you feared them to be. As they strutted and slithered menacingly about the grounds, we began to look at our ranger and his tool for fighting off a dragon should they attack: a “Y” shaped stick, with increasing dubiousness.

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If you zoom in on the girl taking a selfie, you’ll see that she is completely aware of the approaching Komodo dragon.

As we stood and watched the dragons slowly return to their sedentary state, our ranger, as if suffering from amnesia, deemed it necessary to tell us several times without being asked that they never feed the dragons and then posited that they must be lured to the shelters by cooking odors. “Ah, so they feed them,” we thought to ourselves. Eager to see ones in the wild (and not eager at the same time) we left the shelters to begin our trek across the island. 

 It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were traversing the same hillsides that had so enticed us during our boat ride to the park. Verdant and untouched, it was not at all difficult to imagine spotting a dinosaur munching on vegetation in the distance let alone Komodo dragons. Sadly though, our imaginations would have to suffice for both as for the duration of our hour and a half walk across the island, the ones perched outside the ranger shelters would end up being the only ones we’d see.

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The first part of our hike included a walk through the forest where we saw nesting sites for the Komodo dragons

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Sitting on our long boat ride back to Labuan Bajo, we had plenty of time to contemplate our time in the park. Disappointment at not seeing Komodo dragons on our trek came to mind first but then disappointment suggests an expectation to see such things. Too often in our travels we have witnessed and fell victim to the allure of seeing unique, wild animals through means that don’t keep them wild. Whether it be a parade of jeeps falling over themselves to box in a family of elephants in Sri Lanka or a fleet of boats dropping anchor in an already depleted coral reef in Vietnam, tour operators often pay no adherence to the protection and care of the wild animals that keep their operations afloat in the name of leaving a site with a satisfied customer. Like the filmmakers in King Kong, businesses and travelers alike can get greedy about the experiences and profit that wildlife can provide, but it’s important to remember that nature isn’t an entertainer and adheres to no schedule. Expecting it to do so is selfish and the only truly disappointing thing is that it took us until this trip to finally realize this. It was encouraging then to hear that the park would be closing sometime this year to allow dragon and deer populations to recover, a positive first step that hopefully turns into a long journey for the tourism industry and tourists alike towards a more sustainable relationship with nature.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Rinca Holiday

Growing lethargic 
in the tropical heat
I scout out a sunny patch
to bathe in the rays,
creeping slowly to a shady bit
under the trees
when the sun begins
to roast.
On this island
friends surround me.
I mingle,
poking fun 
and enjoying
the company.

Whiiiiiizzz,
thud.

I snap to attention 
in unison with the throng.
Is it my next meal?
A snack?
No,
just a brick.
Thrown for the amusement
of the crowd of humans 
that stands around
day after day watching
me and my bank
live life.
I get up and amble toward one
She jumps back in fear,
I smirk.
Just like the brick,
it works every time.