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.

Yogyakarta

Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.

Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?

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The unique interior of our hotel

To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.

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An empty becak driving through the streets of Jogja

Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.

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Adi always made sure to point out the city’s galleries of graffiti, which were on vibrant display down nearly every alleyway we turned into.

For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.

To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.

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The first part of the process is to pencil the pattern on to the cloth.
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Then, hot wax is traced over the outline of the pattern…
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…after which the cloth undergoes its first dye bath, usually indigo blue.
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Once the dye dries, more designs are added to the cloth via hot wax and the process continues as such until the desired pattern is achieved.
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Stamps are also used to apply wax to forego the hand-drawn part of the process.
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Some of the stamps had beautifully elaborate designs on them.
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Colors on some batiks were done by hand instead of dyeing
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The last step of the process was to melt off all the wax, leaving the finished pattern on the cloth. The melted wax was collected and balled to be used again to create the designs on future batiks.

While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.

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After leaving the factory, Adi took us to a nearby workshop that featured batik from local artists. Of the hundreds of pieces on display, not one was similar to another.

From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets. 

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The puppets are made from water buffalo hide. After curing the hide and tracing the wayang’s design onto it, an artisan carves out the puppet and the countless holes inside of it necessary for the wayang’s pattern to be seen in its shadow.
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After this, a painter applies the the many colors that make up the wayang’s clothing and skin.
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Each of the many colors and features of the wayang are symbolic, which is evident in the complexity of this illustration explaining what each one means.

As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.

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Our guide showing us what the finished product looks like in its shadowed form, which is how most people would see the puppet during a show. After leaving the wayang workshop, Adi informed us that traditional shows last around eight hours and take place from dusk to dawn!

Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.

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One of the main gates leading into Taman Sari.
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Looking out from the tower where the sultan would observe and choose a concubine.
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Another one of the main gates leading into the complex.
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Ending the day with a delicious supper of gudega dish comprised of young, unripe jackfruit boiled in palm sugar and coconut milk over the course of several hours. In hindsight, we can’t believe we only ate this once while in Jogja.

The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet. 

As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.

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A view of the puppet performance from in front of the stage

Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others? 

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The dalang behind the stage, wearing batik just like his puppets

It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.

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After leaving the palace, we passed away the afternoon at Milas, a vegetarian and eco-friendly restaurant that also does a lot to support the Yogyakarta community

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Wayang

What we cannot faithfully communicate,
art can.
Art alludes to what words elude.
Poetry,
painting,
pantomime.
All inclusive.

Yet,
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
total truth.
You must search for the meaning,
the message,
the misunderstanding.

Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.

Fingers—
Mind
Feeling
Instinct

Flowers—
Water
Air
Fire
Earth

Features—
Spirit
Wisdom
Loyalty

Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
a truth
about the nature of humans.

Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth
in shadow.

Borobudur

Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.

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Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.

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The temple was not at a lack of buddha statues, boasting over 500 of them

Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.

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Apart from the three sections mentioned above, other reliefs were discovered buried under the foot of the temple during renovations. The reliefs in this section either depicted humanity’s bad habits or scenes from Buddhist hell. In this relief, as described by the original description etched above it, people are gossiping to one another, looking not too unlike how people might look while gossiping today.

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While there was plenty to take in at eye level, looking up always yielded a reward

As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.

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Archeologists believe that Borobudur’s, reliefs, which number in the thousands, used to be covered with vibrant paint

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Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.

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Looking over the shoulders of a headless buddha statue

To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana. 

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Heading through one last doorway before finally reaching the top of the temple

Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.

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Nirvana means “extinguished,” which is how the temple’s uppermost level felt in comparison to the other, more detailed sections

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Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.

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The descent from nirvana proved to be considerably easier than the climb towards it
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The source of our dinner that night, a street side warung
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…that we enjoyed on the street. An enjoyable (and delicious) way to end the day!

 

Prambanan

When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.

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While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.

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The tree we camped under during the rainstorm
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The birds were undeterred by the rain

While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.

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Walking through the half-finished shrines outside the main temple complex that were thought to have been used for meditation by priests

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Standing in front of one of the shrines that was fortunate enough to be fully restored

As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.

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Heading in to the temple grounds
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Inside one of the three main temples, each of which was dedicated to one of the Hindu gods; either Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the keeper), or Shiva (the destroyer)

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We never grew tired of seeing these faces atop the doorways of the temples
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The kalpavriksha tree, a sacred tree said to grant wishes, was a common sight among the temples many carvings. Flanking it are two of the many birds depicted at the site, whose features are so anatomically correct that scientists today can identify their species
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More kalpavriksha trees and birds bookending the puppy-like enthusiasm of a lion

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After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple. 

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Pausing for a break to take everything in before moving on
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Just before heading to Sewu Temple I was asked if I could be drawn by a local artist who had also done a portrait of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo
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The finished product, which only took about two minutes
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The scenery on the walk to Sewu Temple was beautiful as well

Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue. 

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However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.

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Dusk added an entirely different dimension to the temples, unfortunately though our tickets didn’t allow us to stay for the sunset
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Enjoying our meal in a warung before catching the bus back to Jogjakarta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist 

An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.

Why birds?

They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.

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.

Ruteng

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

It was with this paragraph that the world was introduced to the beloved hobbits and their seemingly unattainable simplicity that still entices the imaginations of movie-goers and book readers alike today. Having long been enchanted by the creatures in Tolkien’s tales myself, I was surprised and delighted to find that Ruteng, one of the stops along our journey across the Indonesian island of Flores, had a site near it called the “Hobbit Cave.” Looking at pictures of the cave before going however, we found that it was wet and dirty, though we couldn’t speak for the ends of worms, oozy smells, or it’s overall nastiness. There was no round wooden door opening into the cave nor anything pleasant filling it, certainly no places to sit down on, and nothing that spoke of comfort. The cave however, didn’t get its name for its resemblance to the fictitious dwellings of the hobbit but rather from the real life species that used to live there, by some estimates, as recently as 50,000 years ago. Human in form, the homo floresiensis, as it is known, topped off at under 4 feet tall much like the famously stature-challenged hobbit. They also had large, flat feet disproportionate to the rest of their body and are thought to have been particularly hairy.

Unfortunately, the resemblances stop there, especially when it comes to lifestyles, for hobbits, most of them anyway, led quiet, predictable lives whereas the life of the homo floresiensis was believed to be anything but. Far from the sleepy, uneventful hillsides of the Shire, the prehistoric island of Flores was home to a slew of other uniquely-sized creatures that made the island a volatile and dangerous place to live. On the outsized and horrific end of the spectrum were nearly 6-foot tall storks, the island’s endemic giant rat, and Komodo dragons that may have been even bigger than the ten-foot long versions that still roam Flores and its neighboring islands today. And on the wrong end of the spectrum, being victims of insular dwarfism, was homo floresiensis and the Stegodon, a dwarf elephant whose maximum height reached anywhere from four to six feet and served as a food source for the fierce hunters of the island, among which the homo floresiensis was included.

Eager to see the site of one of the more surprising and puzzling anthropological finds in recent memory, we rented a motorbike and began making our way toward Liang Bua, the local name for the cave that predated the discovery of the “Hobbit” bones. As we set out, a thick fog descended on us, reducing our already cautious speed to a crawl. Other motorists, undeterred by the lack of visibility, zoomed around us. However dense, the fog seemed intent on passing through the countryside rather quickly, dissipating with almost as much urgency as it had appeared with. Slowly out of the white nothingness of our surroundings came shadows of trees and houses, creating a haunted landscape. Aware of its fleeting beauty as the fog continued to unroll itself at a captivating pace, we stopped the motorbike to watch the scene play out until the fog had all but vanished, leaving a crystal clear view of terraced fields that had only moments before been completely unknown to us. 

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Shortly after the fog cleared
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The other scenery along the way was equally stunning

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If you’re expecting the next part of this tale to be an account of our arrival at Liang Bua, so were we. As it turns out though, operating a vehicle you’ve only driven twice before in your life on a slick surface more rubble than road that frequently dips and curves unpredictably, mistakes are bound to happen. And so, while in the process of correcting the previous and harmless mistake of taking a wrong turn, I made the much more crucial mistake of accidentally accelerating off of the road and down a six-foot drop to a spattering of jagged rocks below. 

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“Do you know how to drive this?” asked the motorbike’s owner. “Yes!” I replied confidently.

Having blacked out briefly as I crashed down the hill, I came around to the sound of the motorbike’s engine still revving, my leg being trapped between the motorbike and one of the aforementioned rocks, and the sight of Kate, who had luckily gotten off the bike prior to me turning it around, rushing down the hill towards me. Immediately, she stopped the engine and lifted the bike up long enough for me to crawl out of under it. A few local villagers, who had seen the accident, arrived shortly after to help. While two of them took the mangled bike up to the road, another began plucking what looked like weeds from the ground, chewing them up and then stuffing the frothy mixture into my wounds. My faint protests at this development were blatantly ignored. Miraculously, it appeared I had no broken bones. Perhaps more miraculous yet, the man still applying chewed leaves to my wounds was able to utter the phrase “traditional medicine” amidst his other reassurances in Indonesian. 

Already feeling invincible at the optimistic state of affairs given just how bad the alternative could have been, I tried standing. Hobbled, but able to walk, the villagers pointed me in the direction of a house sitting at the top of the hill. “Doctor,” one of them said; we were astounded at their ability to communicate even the simplest of things in English. After arriving at the house, a woman, who seemed not at all surprised by the bizarre situation on her doorstep, got some chairs for us to sit down on, disappeared back into her house, and returned shortly after with oils that she applied vigorously to my leg. What appeared to be the entire village had gathered around us. Adding to the crowd were passing motorcyclists who stopped, parked their bikes, and put off wherever they had been going to take in the spectacle. 

Meanwhile, Kate was frantically flipping through our phrasebook, trying to communicate with the herbalist about my condition and with the other villagers about arranging transport back to our hotel. Among the pages of a phrasebook one never hopes to venture into, namely those under the heading of”at the hospital,” Kate learned and became very familiar with the Indonesian words for “broken” and “leg.” It was with this knowledge that she became panicked to hear the word “rusak“ (the Indonesian word for broken) muttered over and over again among the gathering. We would later find that they were referring to the bike, not my leg.

As the situation calmed down, which did nothing to dispel the crowd, the herbalist said a word that needs no phrasebook to translate in any language: coffee. We told her that we would like some and she came out several minutes later with a tray of cups filled to the brim with the steaming, black elixir whose medicinal contributions, however placebic, rivaled those of the oils. After serving us first, she handed out the remaining cups to other members of the gathering. As we sipped our coffee, we noticed that the witnesses to the accident had taken it upon themselves to explain what had happened to the new additions to the crowd, which seemed to expand by the minute. With each telling, eyes seemed to grow wider, tones more serious, and hand gestures more exaggerated to the point where a casual passerby could have been forgiven for confusing my off-road mishap to the stunts of Evel Knievel.

As coffee cups and conversations ran dry, the crowd slowly began to diminish, its members returning to the agendas they had so readily abandoned upon seeing my predicament. Shortly after, our transport back to the village arrived and we bid the villagers farewell. Their kindness had been overwhelming, made even more so by the matter-of-factness that they administered it with. From the herbalist who scoffed at the idea of us paying for the oils and coffee she so readily distributed to the English-speaking local who drove his motorbike around nearby villages looking for a cell phone he could use to arrange our transport, the warmness we were met with seemed reactionary rather than dutiful. Even back at the motorbike shop, the owner’s only concern was whether or not we were okay. “The bike is just a thing,” he said before giving us a pack of gauze and oils from his home to keep (we of course would pay for the repairs).

The day had been far from what we had expected it would be, but, given all the circumstances, we were thankful for the way it had turned out; if not for the lessons learned, at least for the story it provided.

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Having dinner back at the motorbike rental shop after the ordeal