Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Days 208 - 209: Halong Bay

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064718&l=6ce85&id=1101094

The following morning I left for Halong Bay on a trip organized by my guesthouse. Halong Bay is a portion of the South China Sea that is just off the coast of the cities of Haiphong and Halong, both of which are about four hours from Hanoi by bus, and the area's major draw is the thousands of green, forested limestone islands that shoot quite spectacularly out of the turquoise water.

A few times on this trip I've been satisfied to know that I stumbled upon a place that few other Westerners have seen. This is not one of those places. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is good enough to send hundreds of tourists, many of them ageing package tourists, venturing out onto its waters each day. The day I was there, it was more like thousands, due to the fact that it was the beginning of a long holiday weekend in Vietnam. When we reached the Halong City pier, where we'd catch out boat out onto the bay, the scene resembled something akin to a huge parking lot in which everyone has lost his or her car. Westerners, Vietnamese, tour guides, and security guards were milling about with confused looks on their faces, no one quite sure which way to go. We ended up waiting nearly two hours beside the pier to figure out which one was our boat.

While I waited, I struck up a conversation with two girls who were a few years older than me; incidentally, they were the only people I could find who were under age 50 and spoke English. One girl, Sarah, was Canadian; the other, Tamara, was Dutch. I'd spend much of the next two days hanging out with them, and I'd see them again in Sapa a few days later.

We finally boarded the boat, and from then on the experience changed drastically. Our boat was a huge wooden Chinese junk, complete with a kitchen, a dining area, and a large deck on the upper level and private bedrooms on the lower level. The sea was calm, the scenery was beautiful, and the boat proved to be a relaxing hiatus from the zoo we had just experienced on the pier. We spent the remainder of the afternoon sailing past limestone cliffs, crawling through caves, and kayaking into little coves. In short, we all realized just why the excursion to Halong Bay is so popular.

That night after a surprisingly good dinner and an impromptu Texas Hold 'Em tournament between some of the younger passengers, we sprawled out on the deck of our boat and stared up at the stars. The bay is beautiful by night; aided by the moon, we could just make out the karst formations jutting up from the water toward the sky, and when we looked out across the water we could see the glowing lights of the other boats that were anchored nearby. In that moment every hassle and frustration on the pier became well worth the trouble.

After a restful night aboard the boat, we spent the following morning exploring a bit more of the bay before heading back to the pier around mid-day. In Halong City we once again hit a wall of loud tourists; standing there waiting for our minibus to arrive, I couldn't help but wish I had booked the three day trip instead of the two.

Our bus ride back to Hanoi was uneventful for us, but quite eventful for some of the vehicles around ours. Just outside of Halong City, we drove by two trucks that had flipped over the guardrail, and closer to Hanoi we were passed by a motorbiker who, realizing his lane was ending, hit the brakes, slid out on some sand, and slammed his face into one of the guardrail poles, his legs rotating around his head like the hands of a clock. We figure he may have had a bit of a headache the next morning.

Days 206 - 207: Manila to Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi

Ian and I parted ways in the Kuala Lumpur airport, he flying back to California via Bali and I spending the night in Kuala Lumpur and then heading on to Hanoi. My short stay in Kuala Lumpur was as uneventful as the past few had been; the only thing I should note is that I'd now passed through the city eight times in the past eight months. AirAsia has got to be the best thing that ever happened to KL guesthouses.

I caught a 6:30 flight from KL to Hanoi on Wednesday morning, and my plan was to go directly from the Hanoi airport to the Chinese Embassy, drop my visa application, and then pick up my passport complete with my new visa on Friday afternoon. The usual processing time for Chinese visas is four days, but you can pay extra to have it done in three, and I figured it would be worth it to have it done before the weekend so I could head north sooner.

Things did not work out as planned, to say the least. As soon as I got to the embassy, the guard out front asked me to present my visa application, proof of transportation to and from China, and proof of accommodation within China. I did not have either of the latter two items, nor did I realize they were required. When I looked confused, the guard presented a letter from the Chinese government noting the changes in visa policy, which was effective April 15. I argued with him for a bit, saying I was traveling overland into China and that I couldn't possibly have transportation booked already, and eventually he asked if I had a passport photo (I did) and then let me into the embassy building.

I thought I had made it through the gauntlet. I was wrong. At the visa window, a small Chinese man who couldn't have been older than 30 stared at me with beady little eyes as I passed him my visa application. He looked at it for about ten seconds and then passed it back to me. "Where flight ticket and hotel booking?" he asked in painful English. "I travel overland to China, via Lao Cai," I said. "I buy tickets on the way."

"No, must have tickets for visa," he said, shaking his head in an infuriatingly smug way and motioning for the next person to come to the window. I put up a fight for a few minutes before realizing it was pointless: I was clearly not going to be convincing this guy to take my application. I asked how long the office was open today. "Until 11," he said. I looked at the clock. It was 10:45.

"What time do you open tomorrow?" I asked. He pointed to a handwritten sign that was taped to the window. It read, "Due to holiday, China Embassy will be closed May 1 - 4. Regular business will proceed on May 5."

Perfect. Not only was I not going to be able to submit my application on Wednesday, but I now wouldn't be able to submit it on Thursday or Friday, either. Fuming, I marched out of the building, offering the other foreigners in line a halfhearted "Good luck."

I decided that I would head down to Halong Bay the following morning and return Friday evening; I'd then visit a place called Tam Coc, which wasn't on my original itinerary, on Saturday and Sunday. Then I'd submit my visa application on Monday and see how fast they could get it done for me.

In the meantime, I checked into a hostel and set about figuring out how to make transportation and accommodation reservations. This was not an easy task: there was no way for me to buy my bus ticket into China without being at the Chinese-Vietnamese border, which was a 12-hour train ride away. And I'd likely need to be on the Chinese side of the border to obtain the bus ticket, making the requirement to obtain the ticket before obtaining the visa a bit of a Catch-22. And hotel reservations weren't much easier: I could call a hostel and book a bed, but I'd have no proof for the embassy that I actually had a reservation.

But being a true child of the Internet Age, I turned to the thing I know best: online booking. I knew that I could make a flight and hotel reservation on Expedia without actually purchasing anything; I could simply hold the reservations for 24 hours, print out the itineraries (which mentioned nothing about the reservation not being paid for), and present the print-outs to the Chinese Embassy. Sure, it was a huge pain to have to wait until Monday to submit my application, but at least I now had a way to get around the insane new transportation/accommodation policy. I made the reservations, printed out the itineraries, and spent the rest of the day watching Premier League soccer in my guest house. I'd seen plenty of Hanoi's narrow, swarming streets on my last visit.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Days 197 - 206: The Philippines

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064359&l=28472&id=1101094

We managed to wake to our alarms the following morning just after 4am, and a few hours later we were airborne, Manila-bound. Or at least we thought we were Manila-bound. We actually touched down at Clark Airport, formerly known as Clark Airforce Base, which was a good two hour bus ride north of Manila. But AirAsia, the only airline with cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, only flies into Clark, so the bus ride was our penance for the cheap ticket.

We arrived in Manila proper in the mid-afternoon, fought our way onto a metro car, and got off within walking distance of the main hostel area in town. Already dripping with sweat, we checked into a place that had air-conditioned dorm beds for just under $10. Not exactly cheap, but as we'd find out, the Philippines is a bit more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia.

We dropped our packs and set off for Intramuros, Manila's historical district. We checked out a couple cathedrals, a fort, and some charming Spanish Colonial architecture, but much of what once stood in the district was destroyed during Allied and Japanese bombings during World War II. Nevertheless, it had been nearly five years since I'd backpacked through Europe stopping at cathedral after cathedral, so I appreciated the sights. Right now it's mosques and Buddhist temples, not churches, that I'm sick of.

Walking through the streets of Manila, one thing quickly came to our attention: the large number of fat, old, white men who were walking around with young, good-looking Filipino girls. As we'd find out over the course of the next ten days, sex tourism is alive and well in the Philippines, probably more so than anywhere else in Southeast Asia (even more than in Thailand, which is quite a statement).

That night we ate dinner at a cheap Chinese restaurant (Filipino restaurants, aside from the dreaded glass cases, are strangely hard to find in Manila), and afterward we ventured out onto the Manila streets to check out the local bar scene. In the process, we ran across about 20 (no exaggeration) more old white man/ young Filipino girl couples, many of whom were sitting in the bars at tables near ours. The whole thing is quite pathetic; the couples don't talk at all (even though everyone in Manila speaks perfect English), and the girls, in particular, look supremely bored. It's clear that the trip to the bar serves only to make both parties feel better about the cash/sex transaction; if they go to a bar together, they reason, then it's not prostitution, it's a relationship. Right.

The best part about Manila nightlife, as it turned out, was San Miguel Beer, or "SMB" as it's known locally. At about 50 cents per bottle in a bar, SMB might be the cheapest beer I've ever drank, with the possible exception of random local beers in China. And it tastes quite good, too.

After visiting a couple low-key bars, we stopped in at a place that had live music and caught a couple local bands doing covers of Western rock songs. One of the bands was fantastic, and did an incredible cover of "Zombie" by The Cranberries; the other was awful, and we promptly left. But the experienced impressed upon us just how ingrained American culture is in the Philippines-- instead of the usual mainstream covers that you hear all over Southeast Asia, these bands played mostly off-the-run American songs, some of which I'd never even heard. These people know American pop culture better than most Americans.

And it doesn't stop with the music. American food, fashion, and entertainment are all over Manila, too. McDonald's is everywhere, which is no great feat, but so is Wendy's, which is. And if fast food's not your thing, how about T.G.I. Friday's? And everyone you pass in Manila is wearing American brands-- Nike, in particular, is everywhere. And the local movie plays nothing but American movies, none of which are dubbed or subtitled. And all the billboards are in English too. Get the picture? This place is a tropical USA.

Fittingly, then, the following morning I headed for none other than the US Embassy. I needed extra passport pages before I could get my Vietnamese visa, and my plan was to stop by the American Embassy, get the pages inserted while I waited, and then head right for the Vietnamese Embassy. No such luck. First of all, the embassy was mobbed, even though I got there ten minutes before it opened. I took a number and waited for it to be called, which somehow took an hour even though I was the tenth or so person in line. Then, when I finally got to the window, I was told that my passport wouldn't be ready for pickup until 3pm. What? It takes about two minutes to tape some extra pages into my passport, and I have to wait seven hours? Every other embassy I know of does it on the spot.

Then, as I was about to leave, I was told I had to go to the cashier, who was in a totally different room, and get a receipt for my payment. My payment? Weren't extra pages free? Yes, but I still needed a receipt. So I need a receipt that says I paid zero dollars for these passport pages? Yes. For a moment, I felt embarrassed to be an American.

I waited in line for another fifteen minutes for my receipt, and then I marched out of the building, without my passport, of course. I'd have to come back at 3pm on the dot if I hoped to make it to the Vietnamese Embassy before it closed.

During the middle of the day Ian and I went for a run and then caught a movie at the main shopping mall-- there just wasn't a lot else to do in Manila. At 3pm I picked up my passport without any trouble (besides the fact that it was sitting on a counter in plain view from 2:30 onward, but the woman at the window wouldn't give it to me because "pickup hours didn't start until 3pm") and headed for the Vietnamese Embassy, where, to my surprise, I received my visa in ten minutes. So, extra passport pages at the US Embassy are supposed to take half an hour but instead take seven hours, while a visa at the Vietnamese Embassy is supposed to take two to three days but instead takes ten minutes. And who is the modern, efficient country in this scenario?

Back at the guesthouse, we packed up our belongings and Ian went to get his BlackBerry, which he had left charging in an outlet in the guesthouse's common space. It wasn't there. We immediately asked everyone-- guesthouse staff, fellow backpackers, cleaning crew-- if they had seen the device, but no one had (and no one seemed particularly concerned, either). Clearly, someone who was most likely still in the guesthouse had swiped the $400 piece of equipment, and they had done it right under the noses of everyone else in the room. Had the theft honestly gone unobserved? Did the staff really know nothing about it?

We decided to call Ian's number from my Skype account to see if the phone was still turned on; we also hoped that we'd hear the ring if it was hidden somewhere in the guesthouse. But the perpetrator had already turned the phone off, and, by our estimation, very well may have already sold the thing as well. Fuming, but out of options, we left a notice for the guesthouse to put on their bulletin board that offered a $25 reward for the return of the BlackBerry, no questions asked. We checked at the guesthouse the next two times we passed through Manila, but they hadn't even posted the notice. We figured that was because they knew who had taken it and knew it wasn't coming back.

After leaving the guesthouse sans-BlackBerry, we fought our way onto yet another crowded metro train car and took the train to the bus station, where we'd catch an overnight bus to Legazpi. But before we get to Legazpi, a quick word about the metro: though overwhelmingly hot and crowded, it's fast and cheap, which more than makes up for all the sweaty bodies. But the particularly annoying thing, for us, was that all bags had to be inspected before entering any metro station, I guess because of Muslim separatist-related violence that has occurred in the past. For us, that meant unpacking our backpacks every time we boarded the metro, which was exasperating to say the least. Perhaps the most frustrating part is that none of the police officers ever actually inspected our bags; I could have had a big bomb at the bottom of my pack and they never would have found it. My feeling is, if you're going to inspect bags, then inspect them, and make absolutely sure that there's nothing suspicious inside. If you're just going to go through the motions, don't waste my time.

We arrived at the bus station and found a staggering variety of Legazpi-bound buses: regular, express, A/C, no A/C, 2x1 (seat arrangement), 2x2, 3x2. Prices ranged from 300 pesos (~$7) to 900 pesos (~$22). Predictably, we chose the 300 peso bus, which had no A/C and a 3x2 seat configuration.

What, exactly, is a 3x2 seat configuration, you ask? It means that three people sit on one side of the aisle, and two sit on the other. The catch, of course, is that a bus with a 2x2 or 2x1 seat configuration is exactly the same width as a bus with a 3x2 seat configuration, so a 3x2 bus is simply more crowded. In our case, we ended up on the 3 side of the bus, and even when Ian and I were the only ones in the seat, we couldn't sit up straight without our shoulders overlapping. We were less than enthused, then, when they tried to stick a third man into the seat.

Tried being the key word. He squeezed and clawed and held his breath, but it was no use. He just didn't fit in between the side of my body and the metal bar that served as the seat's armrest. So they stuck a kid next to me, instead; he didn't really fit, either, and I'm sure he ended up with a huge bruise on his leg from the metal bar that was pressed into him, but no one seemed too concerned about all that.

We passed the night miserably: with the kid in the seat with us, Ian and I couldn't both sit back in the seat: one of us had to lean forward, and the other had to lean back. We dozed on and off the entire night, intermittently changing our positions and slamming our foreheads on the window frame or the metal seatback in front of us. We arrived in Legazpi around 8am feeling about as fresh as the food in those Indonesia glass case restaurants.

In Legazpi, which is several hundred miles east of Manila but still on the same island (Luzon), we hoped to plan trips to Donsol, which was two hours south of Legazpi, to swim with whale sharks, and to Mt. Mayon, which was an hour north of Legazpi, to do some hiking. When we checked into prices for both activities, however, we found that hiking Mayon was fairly expensive, and based on the pictures we saw in the office of the company who ran the hikes, we wouldn't be missing much if we didn't climb the mountain. So, after a bit of deliberation, we decided to bag the mountain climb and just go to Donsol, and then devote the extra time to Puerto Galera, on Mindoro Island, so that Ian could get his PADI scuba diving certification.

We had to wait around for a couple hours for the minibus to Donsol to fill up, but once it did the trip was speedy and we arrived in just over an hour. We went straight to the whale shark visitor center, where we reserved seats on a boat that left the following morning. Then we headed to town and dropped our bags at a local family's home that doubled as a guesthouse.

That afternoon we went for a jog and then spent a couple hours on the beach, which wasn't particularly attractive or clean. But then, we hadn't come to Donsol for the beach. That evening, we ate some Filipino window food with a couple other backpackers-- a girl from New York and a guy from Paris-- and then all four of us went to the local basketball tournament that was going on in the park.

This was no pickup, shirts 'n skins basketball tournament, but an organized affair complete with coaches, uniforms, and even announcers. And the entire town was present. Literally. When we arrived we couldn't even find a seat. But then the locals saw the poor foreigners wandering around looking for somewhere to sit and took pity on us, and before long we were sitting courtside, at midcourt, between the two teams' benches. I felt like Jack Nicholson.

We watched two games, and both were fantastic. The first came down to the final seconds, and the second involved a huge comeback and then a four-point play with only a few seconds remaining to send the game into overtime. All in all, it was some of the best entertainment I'd had on the entire trip, and best of all it wasn't made for tourists in the least. Finally, I felt like I was experiencing actual Filipino culture. And Filipinos love their basketball.

We didn't make it to bed until quite late that night, and we were still groggy when our alarm rang the following morning at 6:45. But we successfully dragged ourselves out of bed and down to the departure point for the whale shark boats, and a few minutes later we were out in the open ocean, with our eyes peeled for the largest fish in the world. An hour later, we still hadn't spotted anything, and Ian and I were passed out, to the other passengers' amusement.

This went on for another couple hours, and by 11am, our supposed ending time, we still hadn't seen anything. But the crew of the boat took pity on us, stopped to refill the petrol tank, and took us back out to sea. About an hour later, we had spotted a whale shark. It was a baby, measuring "only" four meters.

We approached the shark and when we were close enough, the boat crew gave us the go-ahead and we all plunged into the water. A few seconds later, we were swimming right beside the huge fish, which was itself swimming slowly in a circle just below the surface. It didn't seem at all disturbed by our presence, and I was able to swim in front of it and take a look at its huge, distinctive mouth. For a while, it was only the eight of us in the water, but then some of the other boats got wind of our find and came motoring over to join the party. Half an hour later, the place was a mob scene, and something like 40 snorkelers surrounded the shark. I'm amazed the thing didn't just swim off. When we had had enough, we climbed back out of the water and into the boat, but not before I slid my hand down the fish's monstrous dorsal fin. I just couldn't help myself.

That afternoon we caught a jeepney back to Legazpi, and from there an overnight bus to Manila. Wait, you say, what the hell is a jeepney? Well, it's a strange looking vehicle with a jeep for its front but an elongated back that holds two benches (much like the Thai sawngthaew) and packs the people inside it. The first jeepneys were made from old American jeeps, but now they're made from scratch. They're usually painted in bright colors, and they're prevalent all over the country, but especially so in Manila, where one passes about every 1.3 seconds.

Anyway, we passed this particular jeepney ride on the roof of the vehicle, because the inside was full. That was good for climate control, but not so good for our rear ends, which were in bad shape by the time we arrived in Manila the following morning.

Our overnight bus arrived in Manila at 4:30am, and we waited out the sunrise at a 24 hour McDonald's just down the road from the bus station. Then, once the metro started running, we caught a train to Friendly's Guesthouse to check on Ian's BlackBerry (no luck), and from there we started an epic journey to find the Chinese Embassy, which no one seemed to be able to locate. In the end, the journey was pointless, as I'd have to be back to pick up my passport while we still planned to be in Puerto Galera. I decided to wait and get the visa in Hanoi.

We caught a bus south to Batangas port and a boat from Batangas to Mindoro Island, and in just a few hours we were on Sabang Beach in Puerto Galera. Well, beach is a stretch, as the sand was now basically taken over by countless restaurants and dive shops. But that was ok, because we were there to dive.

We decided to do our diving at a place called Capt'n Greg's, which was owned by an Australian who talked in an accent that was totally intelligible, even to his closest friends. We just waited for him to finish talking, and then everyone laughed politely. He could have been cursing us all out, and still we all would have given him nice, polite laughs in return.

Ian booked his Open Water course, and I decided to do my Advanced course, which involved five "Adventure" dives that I most likely would have done anyway. We were content to go to bed early and get a good start on our courses the following morning, but my instructor, a Welsh ex-military guy named Mark, was determined to take us out and introduce us to Sabang that evening. Totally unaware of what we were getting ourselves into, we said sure.

Over the course of the next few hours, Mark took us to a series of "discos" which were not really discos at all. They were strip clubs. No, that's not exactly true, either. They were strip clubs that doubled as whorehouses. At every one of the clubs, every girl who was sitting on a stool, dancing on the stage, working behind the bar-- you name it-- was a prostitute. Mark was nice enough to explain for us the rules of the game, which I'll summarize for you now:

There are no pimps in Sabang. Instead, there are mamacitas. Each prostitute works for a mamacita, and if you want to take a girl out of the bar, you have to pay her mamacita 1000 Pesos ($25). From there, you negotiate directly with the girl, but Mark said the going rate was another 1000 Pesos. Is that a good deal? Well, I'm not exactly sure, but based on the number of old, white men who were hanging around the discos in Sabang, it must not be a total rip-off. Seriously, you've never seen so many Johns in your life. Sitting there watching them all made my stomach turn.

But despite what seemed to me to be a preponderance of Johns, according to Mark it was the low season for (sex) tourism, and that meant that the girls would be more aggressive in trying to drum up business. He said it with a smile, as if it were a good thing, but let me assure you that it was absolute hell. At every club we entered, girls would come up behind Ian and me and put their arms around us and rub our chests, or our legs, or... well, they rubbed lots of places. It was possibly the most embarrassingly awkward situation I'd ever found myself in, and the worst part was that we couldn't leave because we were a guest of Mark's, with whom I'd be spending the next three days underwater. Put it this way: I wasn't about to do something to make the guy dislike me.

Mark, by the way, and another Westerner who was with us whose name I don't recall, were free from the girls' attacks. That was because they each had their "girlfriends" along-- Filipino girls they had met in Sabang that had, at one point, been dancers in these very clubs. I guess their girlfriends were relieved to be rid of the chore of dancing in these clubs, but they were still very much involved in their original trade, prostitution. It's just that now it happened to be monogamous prostitution.

As the night wore on and Ian and I continued to ward off the advances of the many girls who felt it was acceptable to grope us, Mark clearly grew impatient. He obviously wasn't going to be satisfied until we had picked out two of these girls and taken them home, and at each club he would pan the room and then say, "OK, which one do you like?" "Um, how about, NONE OF THEM?" Some of these girls were seriously 14 years old. It was disturbing, sad, wrong, all of the above... but mostly I just found it disgusting.

Finally, when we had visited at least six or seven different "discos," Mark finally got the hint that this wasn't our scene and said he was off to meet a friend. Thank God. Left alone in the last club, we waited until he was safely down the road and then bolted back to our guesthouse, shivering the filth from our bodies as we walked.

Over the course of the following three days, we learned to hate Sabang and everyone in it. There are really only two types of inhabitants of the town: Filipino girls, all of whom are prostitutes, and white men, all of whom employ said prostitutes. There's nothing else. What about the dive shops, you ask? Well, the men who work there are white and pay for sex, and the women who work there are Filipino and are prostitutes on the side. I'm dead serious. It's just that simple.

And another thing about Sabang's flesh trade: it's not the discreet form of prostitution that exists in many places across the world. It's completely in your face. Fat, old, white men walk around holding hands with their prostitutes. They take them to restaurants and bars. They go scuba diving with them. As far as I'm concerned, they might as well do the dirty deed right in front of me too-- I probably wouldn't be much more disgusted than I already am.

But one thing did change for me during those four days in Sabang-- slowly my anger toward and condemnation of the men involved in this dirty business changed to something else: it changed to pity. I looked at these disgusting excuses for men and found them to be not morally reprehensible, not fatally flawed, but totally and completely pathetic. If these men were able to look themselves in the mirror each morning and say, "Yes, this is the life I choose to lead, and I'm proud of it," I'd be shocked.

Perhaps the most disheartening moment during those four days for Ian and I was meeting Bob's wife. Bob was Ian's dive instructor; an American ex-Marine now in his 70s, Bob had been responsible for surveillance of Russian submarines during the Cold War. He was now retired, and sometime over the past 15 years his wife had died, and he had remarried and now lived in Sabang and worked as a dive instructor. During the first two days of Ian's course, he mentioned his new wife multiple times, referring to her as "the light of his life." Ian and I both assumed he had met some American girl after his wife died, married her, and moved to Sabang with her to live out both of their last years in a tropical paradise. Then we met his wife-- a Filipino girl who couldn't have been more than 25. That was the breaking point for us. Even Bob, who seemed like a genuinely good guy, was in on the scam. The question we were dying to ask was, "Hey Bob, so how long was she your prostitute before she became your wife?"

The diving in Sabang proved to be excellent. I did six dives over three days, three of which involved exploring underwater shipwrecks, a first for me, and one of which took me to a new depth limit of 35m. The coral was in great shape. Fish were everywhere. I saw hideous moray eels, spiny lionfish, odd frogfish, and dozens of other rare species. And all I'll remember twenty years from now are the prostitutes.

Our dive courses complete, we returned to Manila for our flight out to Kuala Lumpur, which left the morning of the 29th. After ten days in the Philippines, we felt certain that we'd gotten a decent taste of the country, though we were far less certain that it was a taste we liked.

Days 195 - 196: Kupang to Surabaya to Kuala Lumpur

We arrived back in Kupang on Thursday evening and immediately began wondering what in the world we were going to do until our flight on Saturday. The town had zero points of interest, there was no decent beach nearby, and internet, the obvious fallback, was dirt slow. We decided that we'd try to change our flight from Saturday to Friday-- often times airlines in developing countries will let you make such a change for little or no additional cost.

So bright and early Friday morning we caught a bemo to the Transnusa ticket office... but before I mention Transnusa, I should say a word about bemos in Kupang. They are hilarious. First of all, there are so many of them that I have no clue how any of them pick up enough passengers to make a profit; at one point we tried to estimate their frequency on the main road, and we counted something like nine bemos in 30 seconds. That's a lot of public transportation.

But the best part about these little minibuses is that every one of them has a huge sound system that pumps Western hip hop and rap music at a decibel level approximating that of a jet engine. And if that's not enough, each one also has elaborate paintings on all the windows depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or some other Biblical character. And hanging from the rear view mirrors are multiple wooden crosses, rounding out what makes for a very strange mix of religion and rap.

Anyway, we arrived at Transnusa and within fifteen minutes had our ticket changed for no fee whatsoever. Amazing. We caught a bemo back to the hotel, grabbed our packs, and headed for the airport.

We touched down in Surabaya, an east Javan city that is the second largest in Indonesia, a couple hours later, and after dropping our packs at one of the city's many dilapidated hotels, we headed straight for the largest shopping mall in town. We were so happy to be back in civilization that, to us, a huge building packed with Western restaurants, movie theaters, and air-conditioning looked something like Paradise. Our first stop was McDonald's, followed closely by Dunkin Donuts. Oh, how I've missed Western junk food.

That night, we decided to check out the Surabaya night life, figuring that the second largest Indonesian city must have some decent parties, especially considering that it was Friday night. Strangely enough, one of the trendiest clubs was connected to the shopping mall where we'd just eaten dinner, so we headed over (through the parking garage, I might add) to check it out. Sure enough, the place was trendy. It was so trendy that the DJ spoke only in English and a beer cost $5 (which may not seem like much to you New Yorkers, but I'm used to paying $1). But it was also early in the night and there weren't many people inside yet, so we decided to have one beer and then go check out some other places rather than sit there for hours drinking $5 beers and waiting for the place to fill up.

While we were sitting there minding our own business, a girl who worked at the club approached us and started talking to me. She was cute enough, and she spoke decent English, so I didn't mind answering all her questions (Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? How long are you here? Do you like Surabaya?). Eventually, it came out that I had recently been to Thailand, and she asked me the predictable "Do you like Thailand?" and when I answered in the affirmative, she said, "Oh! We have some sexy Thai dancers here, you want to meet one?"

Now, I have nothing against Sexy Thai Dancers, but I've been in Asia long enough to be wary of anyone who proposes that I meet one. Nevertheless, the girl insisted, and a few minutes later out came a Sexy Thai Dancer. We were introduced and I started talking to her a bit, but her English was intermediate at best, and combined with the thumping music inside the club, we could hardly communicate. After a while I stopped talking to her altogether, and she just stood there dancing beside me, which was awkward.

Just before we were about to leave, the girl who worked at the club walked up to our table and said to me, "You like her? You want to buy her a drink?" I informed her that we were just leaving, but that maybe we would buy the girl a drink when we came back. Anything to get out of there without any hassle.

We walked over to a bar inside the Sheraton Hotel (the only bars in central Surabaya are in hotels or shopping malls, it seems), which was just around the corner, hoping for a better scene. We didn't get it. The place was mostly empty, despite the fact that a "Heaven and Hell" party was in progress. After a few minutes of watching a bunch of guys dressed in devil costumes dance on the bar, we decided that even the Sexy Thai Dancers were better than this, and we made for the exit, passing along the way the dozen prostitutes who were sitting in the back of the bar giving us the eye.

As much as it pained us, we headed back for our original club, and as soon as we got inside we were again accosted by the girl who insisted on introducing us to Thai girls with whom we didn't want to talk. And before I could say, "No Sexy Thai Dancers," she had put one on us. This one was particularly aggressive: she didn't speak much English, but she did keep rubbing her butt on my leg as she danced next to me. I continued my conversation with Ian and pretended not to notice the overt sexual harassment that my leg was experiencing.

A few minutes later, the girl who worked at the club came over to our table and asked what we wanted to drink; Ian and I both ordered a beer, and, hoping that buying this Thai girl a drink would fulfill some requirement that allowed her to leave us alone, I ordered a tequila shot for the Sexy Thai Dancer (who, I might add, had braces and wasn't really Sexy at all).

A few minutes later the drinks came, and still I said not a word to the Thai girl, figuring that the drink had paid for my right to be left alone. Then the girl who worked at the club approached our table with a sheet of paper that we assumed was the bill and said we owed Rp 150,000. Fifteen dollars? That was about right-- $5 for each drink. We paid the girl and she left.

Then, two minutes later, the real bill arrived, carried by the waiter who had brought our drinks. "What? No, we already paid that girl over there. Go on, ask her-- we already paid."

Thirty seconds later the girl was back at our table, asking us what the problem was. We told her that we had been brought a second bill for our drinks-- hadn't we only just paid for them? No, she informed us, we hadn't paid for the drinks. We had paid to talk to the Not-So-Sexy Thai Dancer. Apparently, that's what buying the girl the tequila shot meant: that we had "chosen" her, and were willing to pay $15 to talk to her. To talk to her.

Disgusted, we paid the bar tab, finished our beers quickly, and stood up and made for the door. The girl who worked for the club followed us, asking what the problem was. What's the problem? You just suckered us into paying $15 to talk to some ugly Thai girl. I informed the girl that we didn't pay to talk to anyone, and that we were leaving and not coming back. Still annoyed, both at ourselves and at the conniving wait staff, we marched out of the club and back to our hotel. Surabaya night life? I'll pass.

The following morning we went back to the shopping mall to try to find some sandals to replace the ones that I had broken in Bali, but everything was overpriced. We had been so happy to see the modern malls and restaurants the previous day, but already we were growing tired of them. Where's a street stall selling $1 sandals when you need it? And how about some 70-cent nasi goreng?

Convinced that Surabaya had nothing more to offer us, we caught the bus to the airport, and a few hours later we were touching down in Kuala Lumpur. This made my seventh trip to the city in as many months.

By the time we caught the bus into the city, it was dinner time, and we ate at a hole-in-the-wall rice and noodles restaurant in Chinatown. Afterwards, we dropped by a bar across the street from our guesthouse, where we planned to order a few beers. But I had forgotten how expensive beer is in Malaysia; the government, it seems, imposes a sin tax on both alcohol and tobacco, making both far more expensive in Malaysia than in surrounding countries. Paying $5 for a beer at some Chinatown bar in KL didn't seem like a good idea (after all, look how far $5 beers got us in Surabaya), so we left the bar (which, by the way, seemed to employ only ladyboys as waitresses) and headed back to the guesthouse. Our flight to Manila left at 7:15 the following morning, meaning we'd need to catch a 4:45am bus to the airport. Suddenly going to bed early didn't seem like such a bad idea.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Days 191 - 194: Timor-Leste

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064358&l=07977&id=1101094

The following morning our first stop was the Indonesian Embassy, where we applied for new Indonesian visas in order to re-enter the country at the end of the week. The good news was that the processing time was shorter than we had been told: two days rather than four. The bad news was that the visa fee was far higher than we had expected: $45 instead of $25 for a 30-day visa on arrival or $10 for a 7-day visa on arrival. Given that most people applying for visas in Dili are citizens of Timor-Leste, it seems that the government of Indonesia, a bit bitter after the battle for independence, is now saying, "You want to be rid of us? Fine, but good luck coming back to visit."

After dropping off our passports and visa applications, we wandered back into the center of town and had another look at the tent cities that we had seen the previous night. In the daylight, it became clear that it wasn't only the tent cities that were hosting people: various buildings along the main road had been overrun by squatters who had seemingly taken up residence some time ago. Sanitation around both the tent cities and the recommissioned buildings seemed mediocre at best: trash was everywhere, the stench of urine filled the air, and pools of dirty water served as mosquito breeding grounds. Much of the population of the tent cities seemed to be getting its fresh water from an exposed underground pipe that someone had put a hole in: water was gushing out and residents were speedily filling buckets; some were even taking showers.

We continued on to the eastern edge of town, and here we got a taxi to take us the remaining 7km to the end of the bay, where there was a nice beach, some decent coral, and a 27m Jesus statue presiding over the whole area. We climbed to the top of the hill on which the Jesus statue sat, and on the way up we passed small representations of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The whole complex had been built by the Indonesian government back when East Timor was still a province of that country, and Indonesia couldn't resist embedding a political message in the supposed gift: at 27m, the Jesus statue represents the 27 different provinces in Indonesia, of which East Timor was one.

On our way back down to the beach we passed several heavily armed UN police officers who were doing some sort of training in a parking lot at the base of the hill; it turned out that they were Portuguese, as much of the UN police (known locally as"unpol," pronounced the way it looks) in Timor-Leste is. Timor-Leste was, of course, once a Portuguese colony, and its former overlord still exerts a considerable amount of power in the young country. Plus, Portuguese is still the official language, although Tetun is far more widely spoken by locals.

Back on the beach, we did a bit of snorkeling, which, after an initial swim through nearly 100 meters of shallow, seaweed-infested water, turned out to be quite decent, especially considering the reef's proximity to Dili Harbor. We did a bit of reading, and then we started chatting with a blonde girl who was, at the time, the beach's only other inhabitant. It turned out that the girl was a sort of internal journalist for the UN, although she seemed to be greatly limited in what she could publish; indeed, it was almost as if her primary job was to write official statements for the UN if and when they required them. Needless to say, it didn't seem like the most rewarding job in the world.

Originally from Lithuania, the girl had been living in Dili for nearly two years, and she was headed home soon, which she seemed to be looking forward to. After we had been talking for about an hour, one of her UNPOL friends, a man from Portugal, arrived at the beach on his gigantic motorbike and joined in the discussion. Confused as to what we could possibly be doing in Timor-Leste, the two UN workers eventually concluded that we must be spies for the CIA, although we quickly pointed out that there wasn't much to spy on here. The conversation quickly shifted to the recovery effort that the UN had been leading ever since the war for independence, and the UNPOL officer didn't have many good things to say. He indicated that nothing much was getting done, and that much of that was a result of UN workers coming here for a short period of time and only caring about getting paid and leaving. We asked about the tent cities and were told that they housed people from all over Timor-Leste who felt unsafe living in the countryside, where the resistance movement against the current government is based. The tents had been in place for years, and they weren't expected to go anywhere anytime soon.

Finally, we asked about the recent attempted assassination of President Ramos-Horta, and we got a detailed account of the day from both of our new friends. It seems that that leader of the resistance movement, Alfredo Reinado, who supposedly planned the assassination, was killed early in the morning, before any shots were fired at the President. Apparently, Reinado, a former officer in the Timor-Leste military who deserted in 2006 to join 600 recently-fired soldiers in a sort of rebel militia, was enough of a problem that the Timor-Leste government had ordered its military to shoot him on sight. His usual base was high in the country's central mountains, and it's unclear why he was in Dili on the morning of the attempted assassination, given that he had planned the attack but wasn't one of the soldiers actually carrying it out. In any case, Reinado was shot dead first thing in the morning, and it wasn't until a couple hours later that news broke that the President had been shot. Dili was in lockdown mode for the rest of the day, and a government-imposed curfew is still in effect now, but for the most part life returned to normal the day after the shootings, according to our UN friends.

We had now been talking for a couple hours, and sunset was fast approaching, and we realized that we had no method of transportation back to town: taxis didn't come out this far looking for passengers, and neither did microlets, as the local minibuses are called. But the Lithuanian girl had a UN pickup truck, so we asked her if we might catch a ride back to town. Although civilians aren't allowed in UN vehicles, she was nice enough to take us anyway, and fifteen minutes later we were back at our hostel.

A quick word on costs in Timor-Leste: this country is not cheap. A combination of a high concentration of relatively wealthy aid workers and a lack of local production of, well, anything has led to prices that are many times higher than in neighboring Indonesia. Here, a gallon of gas costs over $4 ($2 in Indonesia), a can of Coke costs $1 (50 cents in Indonesia), an hour on the internet costs an average of $6 (less than $1 in Indonesia), and the cheapest bed in town costs $10/person ($3/person in Indonesia). The upside is that all the foreign workers has led to a wealth of restaurants and bars; although we didn't sample the bar scene because of the 11pm curfew, we did eat at a fantastic Indian restaurant every night we were in Dili.

The next morning we arose at 5am and, after a quick detour to the Jesus statue to retrieve Ian's book and sunglasses (which were both miraculously still lying on the beach), we caught a bus headed south into the mountains. Our plan was to get off the bus at a town called Maubisse, and from there hitchhike down a side road to the base of Mt. Ramelau, the highest mountain in Timor-Leste. After hiking the mountain we'd hitchhike back to Maubisse and then catch a bus back to Dili. The first part went according to plan: after an hour delay due to a fallen tree that was blocking the road, we continued up into the mountains and arrived in Maubisse before noon. We ate lunch at a small Indonesian-style (glass case) restaurant, and then we caught another bus to the turnoff to Mt. Ramelau. But it was at this point that we ran out of luck. After five hours of sitting on the side of the road waiting for a car, a motorbike, anything, to drive by (and being stared at intensely by locals who must have wondered what in hell we were doing), we gave up and hitched a ride back to Maubisse in the back of a truck. We checked into a guesthouse that sat atop a hill overlooking the town. Formerly an old Portuguese home, the guesthouse was beautiful, and only cost $18 for the two of us (although rates rose to $60 on the weekend to account for the aid workers who streamed in looking for an escape from the suffocating Dili heat).

After a quick jog through the hilly and quite picturesque little town, we showered and walked down the hill looking for food, but despite the fact that it was only 7pm, both of the restaurants in town were closed. Annoyed, we hiked back up the hill to our guesthouse, where dinner cost $8 instead of the $2 it cost in town. But when we asked to see a menu, we were told that there was no more food: we would have had to put in our order hours ago if we had wanted dinner that night. Perfect. We hiked back down the hill and purchased a dinner of chocolate wafers and hard candy from a small shop, the only place in town that was still open. Unsatisfied, we went to bed early and counted down the hours until breakfast.

The next morning, after eating, we caught a ride back to Dili, but this time we were not in a bus but in the back of a truck that had long wooden benches installed on either side of the bed. Unlike on the bus, we had plenty of legroom, and we figured that the ride down to Dili would be more comfortable than the bus ride up. We were wrong. Seated on the wooden benches, with our backs against round metal poles, we felt every bump in the road, and, needless to say, there were many, many bumps in the road. Also, the truck's exhaust pipe extended only halfway down the wooden truck bed, so clouds of black exhaust shot up through the spaces between the truck bed's wooden boards and directly into our faces. At one point someone put a plastic container over one of the spaces hoping to block the exhaust, but that did little but push the fumes to another gap in the wood. In short, the ride down to Dili was not particularly pleasant; when it was over, my back was bruised from the metal poles and my lungs felt like I had just emerged from a 22-hour ride on a smoke-filled Indonesian bus.

Back in Dili, we did little else than pick up our passports from the Indonesian Embassy and then stop by the American Embassy, where I hoped to get extra pages put in my passport. False hope. The American Embassy in Dili apparently has the authority to do, well, nothing. If I wanted extra passport pages, I'd have to wait three weeks for my passport to be sent to the American Embassy in Jakarta. No, thanks.

On Thursday morning, just as we were about to catch our minibus back to Kupang, we got word that President Ramos-Horta had just arrived at the Dili airport and was headed into town in a motorcade. Initially we were worried that our bus would leave before the President arrived, but it soon became clear that the bus, which was picking us up at our hostel, would have no chance of making it down the main road until after the motorcade had passed: the street was mostly closed off by UNPOL vehicles, and the sidewalks were thronged with locals waving flags and hoping to catch a glimpse of their President as he passed. A few minutes later, the motorcade appeared, and we caught a glimpse of Ramos-Horta as he (boldly) leaned out the window and waved. A few minutes later, our minibus arrived, and, our short, odd stay in Timor-Leste complete, we were Kupang-bound.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Days 189 - 190: Maumere to Kupang to Dili

Having spent the past week and a half jumping from tiny town to tiny town, Ian and I were hoping for something a little bigger in Kupang. We didn't get it. Kupang, the largest city in West Timor (i.e. the part of the island of Timor that still belongs to Indonesia), turned out to be a slightly more sprawling version of the Flores towns with which we had become so familiar. Internet was still painfully slow, entertainment was still nonexistent, and the most common form of restaurant still involved a glass case filled with unidentified objects that had been cooked anywhere from two hours to two weeks ago. But I'm getting ahead of myself: the first couple hours in Kupang involved a hasty and desperate search to secure transportation for the next few days, and during those hours we thought nothing of internet, entertainment, or food.

Although we had researched flights to and from Timor-Leste (as East Timor is officially known) online, it was still totally unclear which flights were still running and which were suspended indefinitely. Apparently Kakoak Airlines (Timor-Leste's first commercial airline) and Merpati had both flown from Dili to Kupang at one point, but we weren't able to ascertain whether these flights were still operating; as a result, we didn't know which day to book our flight from Kupang back to Surabaya (Java)-- we'd need a later flight if we took a bus rather than a plane back from Dili.

Our schedule was complicated by the fact that Indonesian visas were available on arrival only at Kupang airport-- not at the border crossing between Timor-Leste and West Timor. As a result, if we couldn't catch a flight from Dili to Kupang, we'd have to get new Indonesian visas in Dili before we could return to Indonesia, and those visas (somehow) took four days to process. Complicated, yes, but the gist of all this is that we would be forced to stay in Dili longer if we couldn't catch a flight out, and that would subsequently delay our flight out of Kupang. But we needed to book our tickets out of Kupang while we were physically in Kupang (because there's no such thing as online booking on Indonesian airlines), and given that we were planning to leave at 6am the following morning for Dili, that meant we had to book our tickets out of Kupang the night of our arrival. And that gave us two hours from the time our plane touched down on the runway; that is, assuming these airline offices actually closed at the prescribed times.

We pushed our way off the plane and into Kupang airport and immediately began asking about flights from Dili to Kupang. Despite the fact that I was speaking Indonesian, no one seemed to be able to answer my question. In the end, I realized that this was because there were no flights from Dili to Kupang, and there hadn't been for so long that "Dili" was simply not a word in the airline employees' vocabularies.

Satisfied that we had finally established our method of transport to and from Dili (bus), we jumped in a taxi and headed for the Transnusa Airlines ticket office, where we needed to book our flight from Kupang to Surabaya. As luck would have it, the office was still open, and we booked our flight for the following Saturday, assuming that we'd arrive in Dili the following night (Sunday), submit our Indonesian visa applications on Monday morning, and pick them up on Thursday evening in time for a bus back to Kupang on Friday. It was to be a whirlwind of a few days, and we wondered if our short visit to Timor-Leste would end up being worth all this hassle, but given that we were so close to the war-torn (and, more recently, attempted assassination-torn) country, we couldn't bear not to at least survey it for a few days.

The final piece of the puzzle was our bus to Dili the following morning; I called the company that ran the minibus, Timor Travel, and, in my best Indonesian, reserved two seats. We were to wait for the minibus outside our hotel at 5am the next morning; the only problem was that we didn't yet know in which hotel we were staying. I promised to call back as soon as we had checked in somewhere.

We found a hotel, and I asked the manager to call and confirm our reservation with the bus company, just to be sure that there was no misunderstanding: we desperately needed to get to Dili by Sunday evening, or our Indonesian visas wouldn't be ready for pickup in time for us to make our flight out of Kupang on Saturday morning. But when the manager called, the bus company told him that they were very sorry but they had made a mistake-- there was only one seat available for the next morning's bus. We froze as the manager conveyed the information to us: what were we to do now? I suggested that one of us sit in the aisle, but the manager didn't understand what I meant. Now we were getting desperate. The company told us we could have two seats on Monday morning's bus, but that did us no good-- we needed to arrive on Sunday evening. We pleaded with our hotel manager, and he pleaded with the company, but to no avail; apparently, we were in serious trouble. Then, just as the manager was about to hang up the phone, the man on the other end of the line miraculously said that he now had two seats for the following morning. I had no idea what had changed in those five minutes, and I didn't care-- I told the manager to say "terima kasih" and hang up the phone immediately. Whew.

The next morning we rose at 4:30am to find our breakfast, just served, waiting for us on the porch. For a $4/night hotel, this place had fine service. We scarfed down the food and walked out to the street to wait for our bus, but at 5:15 it was still nowhere to be found. At 5:30 we began to worry, and at 6:00 we were miserable. After the previous night's drama they had forgotten to pick us up?

At 6:15 I finally got through to the bus company via phone, and to my relief they said that the bus was still coming; I didn't even consider expressing my dissatisfaction that I had woken up at 4:30 only to wait around for an hour and a half. At 6:30, the bus pulled up, and, finally able to breathe normally again, we climbed aboard.

The minibus ride was a marathon; the first section, in West Timor, took us through lush mountains along curvy, steep roads, while the next section, approaching the Timor-Leste border, took us back to the palm-fringed coast, where we caught glimpses of turquoise water and deserted beaches. We reached the border around 1pm, and the crossing was relatively painless, if a touch slow; we were on the road again just after 2:30.

Most of the passengers in the Timor Travel minibuses (there were four of them in our caravan) were Indonesian, but two were Australian, and we spoke to them briefly at one of the rest stops, and again at the border crossing. One was a 60-year old documentary film maker, and the other was an (attractive) woman of 29 who was working as his assistant. We didn't delve into the relationship further, although we were quite curious. In any case, the man was in the midst of making a documentary about Timor-Leste, and while he spoke on that subject he seemed reasonably intelligent. But then he began to discuss economics, including his view that the US dollar would drop until it was worth only one cent, and his belief that the worldwide banking system was a fraud because it relied upon banks lending money that they didn't actually have in their vaults. Confused, I questioned him on the latter point, and it turned out that he didn't exactly understand the concept of "fiat money"-- money with no intrinsic value. Somehow, he believed that the world had been fooled into using money that was worthless, while the only true money remained that which was backed by gold. Whatever, dude.

We arrived in Dili after dark, at around 8pm. After checking into a backpackers hostel, we wandered around town a bit, and the first things we noticed were the immense tent cities that occupied much of downtown. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tents were clearly somewhat permanent: they were all filled with the belongings of their occupants, and most had electricity; some even had satellite TV. We made a mental note to inquire about the tents in the morning, but for the time being we were too tired to do anything but collapse in our beds. Further Dili exploration would have to wait until morning.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Days 185 – 189: Flores

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2064357&l=33fb2&id=1101094

The following morning we set off eastward from Labuanbajo, not in our usual bus or bemo but in... wait for it... a private car, driven by our very own private driver! We had but four days to get across Flores to the town of Maumere (where our flights, on the 12th, originated), and because buses between towns ran only every few days in some cases, we decided that a car was our best bet for getting across the island.

In hindsight, the car may have taken away more from our trip than it added. Sure, it was nice to be able to go wherever we wanted when we wanted, but the car and driver also made me feel like I was having my hand held and being taken from sight to sight, our path seemingly determined by some checklist. The car took all the spontaneity, and certainly all the hardship and drama, away from the trip, leaving us with something resembling a package tour. And the only things I hate more than package tours are package tourists, so you can see how I was less than enthused at the path our trip had taken.

Nevertheless, we did see some interesting sights on our way across Flores: have a look at the photos and see for yourself. Along the way we checked out two volcanoes, each with its own collection of strangely colored lakes; two hot springs, one of which was more like a bathtub for locals; multiple beaches, none of which was particularly beautiful; one "traditional" tribal village, complete with electricity and a hand-painted Telkomsel advertisement; one cave, along with a nice collection of bats and extremely large spiders; and many, many rice fields, one of which was arranged in the pattern of a spiderweb. We also stopped in some small-town grocery stores containing, in addition to the usual staple foods, collections of teenage girls who screamed with joy at the sight of us, thereby making us feel like celebrities. Depressingly, that was the most contact we'd had with the opposite sex in our entire time in Indonesia.

One interesting fact about Flores is that the population is overwhelmingly Christian, as opposed to Bali, where most people are Hindu, and the rest of Indonesia, where most everyone is Muslim. My Lonely Planet explains the phenomenon by noting the Portuguese influence in Flores; but what about the Dutch influence in the rest of Indonesia? Weren't the Dutch Christians as well?

In any case, we spotted a smattering of churches on our way across the island, and they proved a nice break from the ever-present Indonesian mosque. Also, where there's no mosque, there's no 5am call to prayer blasted over the town loudspeakers-- a welcome development for our sleeping patterns.

We arrived in Maumere on the evening of April 11th, in time to confirm our flights and check out the town a bit. Locals elections, it seems, were upcoming, and the town's streets were plastered with campaign signs and political party flags. As Jay insightfully noted, politicians look like douchebags even in Indonesia.

Jay caught his flight to Bali early on the 12th, while Ian and I spent the morning venturing to a beach outside of town on a rented motorbike; that afternoon we arrived at the airport for our short-hop flight to Kupang, West Timor. Was Flores a bit of a disappointment? Perhaps. Was that our own doing? Most likely.