Our bus journeys in the world: from hell to heaven! 

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Funny enough it seems like yesterday when M and I embarked on an exciting adventure to explore 9 Latin American countries together. It is very hard for us to believe that we are now on a complete different chapter, exploring the magical African continent. After many laughs, doubts, tears and incredible encounters, we left Latin America. Fast forward 13 months and we were again on another bus journey… which was interesting! As I am a fanatic of listing things (#sorrynotsorry), we realized that M and I had discovered 30 countries together, which meant: many local buses, chicken buses, shuttle buses, long distance buses and the least we can say is that we had our fair share of emotions and stories to tell! Our experiences were at times close to a disaster but mostly quite entertaining. Those stories are what make us love riding with locals while backpacking. Here are our most memorable moments:

  • Uganda / Rwanda: Our driver furiously overtook hundreds of car and trucks in the middle of the night, excessively using his funky honk. For those who have read my blog or have been to Uganda, you know the road conditions: potholes after potholes. Driving dangerously over 100 km an hour, our bus shaking in every curve and any overtaking action, our very own “Fangio” flew us from Kampala to Kigali
  • Rwanda: certainly the most embarrassing! I had decided to have some Indian leftovers and as it appeared, the restaurant didn’t close the doggy bag properly… Stuck in the back of a crowded bus, smelling like Byriani, ruining clothes and seats, certainly a good way to make friends with locals… not! Well done muzungu!
  • Colombia: We got stuck for hours due to a trucker strike. We had already started making ourselves comfortable, thinking we stick for the night but the police arrived and let us drive through
  • Bolivia: The most romantic one: when we discovered the love we both had (have) for traveling / Bolivia
  • Colombia: We thought that we were going to die between Medellin and Neva – sitting in the front row was a mistake!
  • El Salvador: We were entertained by a clown and a preacher. Both were pretty creepy
  • Belize: We (read: I – my idea of heaven but hell for M) loved the sound proofers, screaming erm singing 80’s love songs on a very early Sunday morning
  • Honduras: We got to sit tight with locals where a 2-seater bench welcomed 4 people. Definitely a good way to get acquainted
  • El Salvador: We stood on overcrowded buses, getting pretty intimate with our immediate neighbors
  • Peru: We felt like we were on a plane, it was so comfortable and spacious. With a 25-hour journey ahead of us, we were definitely happy to travel in style
  • Indonesia: It smelled like onions and cigarettes. They apparently didn’t ban smoking in buses. At least we didn’t have to be embarrassed by being sweaty and smelly

Karma has been good to us and we are grateful that no French nor Swiss was hurt in the “bussing” process around the world. There is no adventure without adventure and for those funny, awkward or scary situations, we are thankful! To many more!

Next: our Rwandan exploration starts!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

The end of a 6-month adventure…

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… I was going to include my journey to go home in my previous post but it turned out to be such an adventure, it deserved a story of its own. After 6 months of intense (sometimes borderline insane) adventures through Latin America and Indonesia, you would think that we finally had enough. That we would have by now prefered to take it easy. Well, this was the plan… kind of… To go home, our plan was to take a public ferry to Ampana, a bus to Luwuk airport and 4 planes to reach Zurich… Long, yes but fairly easy. After three great days on Bolilanga, it was time for us to leave our paradise and our temporary family, heavy hearted. As much as I couldn’t wait to be home, eat a cheese fondue, start looking for a job, catch up with friends and sleep in my own bed, it was hard to accept that this wonderful adventure had come to an end. After 174 days on the road, 12 new countries and a bunch of incredible stories to tell our children, ready or not, we were going home!

The first bad news came in: the ferry that was supposed to take us to Wakai had a technical problem and we had to take two boats to reach Ampana. This was annoying as it was an expensive alternative but not a disaster as it was still cheap European standards. We boarded the small boat that would take us Wakai; it felt pretty adventurous: very bumpy and soon enough, we got wet. At least, our mood was lightened up. Nothing a good laughter cannot fix. In Wakai, we were surprised to see that a public boat was traveling to Ampana! We wondered for a minute (or two) whether we had been lied to by the resort and decided to investigate. The owner was a lovely man and we hoped that this was only a miscommunication. This was indeed not a ferry but a public boat (still we felt like this option should have been given to us, for us to decide whether this was a good idea or not – the owner probably knew better…). We considered taking the speed boat (“take the speed boat” screamed our brains) but chose instead to ride with locals (“yeah! Exciting” shouted our adventurous hearts). We were aware that it would take us a bit longer than with the speed boat but we had 8 hours to reach Ampana, plenty of time we thought. What could go wrong?

Where to start? When the engine started to fail? When we realized that we were stranded on a boat in the middle of nowhere without any phone signal? When 1 hour turned into 2 that turned into 5? When our boat had to take a break every 10-minute to avoid our engine to explode? I couldn’t tell you why but even tho I knew things were getting bad, 7 hours to drive 20 kilometers is bad, I didn’t feel stressed. It might have been the fact that the day was absolutely gorgeous and we had the chance to sit in the sun and chat in Bahasa with locals or maybe feeling welcome among those locals helped: they fed us with coconut rice, spicy dried fish and some more nasi (rice). For me it was also only another logistics issue and I approached the problem the way I would have done it at work. When our new friends realized that we had to catch a bus, everybody wanted to help. There was not much we could do tho but wait until we could use a phone. We had to let the bus company know that we were running late but we were coming. We had to catch that bus as this was our only option not to miss our flight out of Luwuk. Adrenaline was high and I knew I had to organize another boat. I went to the captain and with my broken Bahasa, I attempted to let him know that I needed a boat, any boat (maybe I should have been more specific…) right away. 

Everybody was now aware of the problem, they needed to take the Bule (white people) to a fisherman village asap. Slowly but surely, our captain changed his direction to reach a small village that had unfortunately no phone signal but helpful villagers. It was already past 6 when we arrived there and time was against us. So I decided to be more pushy. I reminded the captain (who was casually chilling on a bench instead of coming up with a solution. Go figure) that we had to be in Ampana by 10 pm latest and we needed a solution. A villager (bless him) told us he could take us there but he needed first to organize a boat as his fisherman boat could not make it on the open sea. To be fair, I wouldn’t have jumped on one of those tiny boats: I am not that brave and I have no death wish. We needed to drive two hours before we could get any phone signal and our savior / new captain told us to be ready to leave by 7 pm. Alright… there was still a chance to make it on time… 

While waiting for our captain, the night had arrived and it was almost pitched dark. Night could not have been darker as there was no moon and when I saw the boat that had been organized, I broke down for the first time. Fear took over and I almost cried… barely bigger than a fisherman boat, the boat was absolutely tiny and had no light… How on earth was the good man supposed to find his way? How on earth could other boats be aware of us? I hesitated but truly there was no time to hesitate. M took my hand and promised me that it would be ok. I had no choice but do what I said I would not do and I boarded this miniature boat. Breathe in, breathe out and karma, please don’t be a bitch. Not today! At first, it was a smooth ride, surrounded by darkness, we felt like smugglers. But after an hour, things started to get bad: a storm was on its way to us and waves got bigger and bigger. We hoped that the storm would not hit us, waves kept crashing onto us, leaving us wet and pretty scared. Our captain didn’t seem to mind, once in a while, I would see his face (when he would turn on his flash light) and he smiled. After a while, it became clear that the storm wouldn’t hit us and we relaxed a bit (a lot. From OMG we are going to die to that wasn’t that bad). 

We could finally send a message to ms. Ulfa, the lady who had sold us the bus tickets. We had no guarantee that the message would reach her and it might have been anyway too late as it was already after 10 but we kept our fingers crossed. We arrived safe and sound in Ampana right before 11 pm and rushed to the office. Slim were the chances that the bus was still there. The office was closed and ms. Ulfa was nowhere to be found. We were not ready to give up just yet. We asked our captain for help and he was amazingly helpful as he walked us through tiny alleys to find ms. Ulfa. After 15 minutes, we felt like we had failed and we slowly accepted the fact that we had to hire a private chauffeur. Missing our flight was not an option. Suddenly, our captain jumped on a scooter and told me to come with him. I left M and drove into the dark. A few minutes later, we had found ms. Ulfa. I couldn’t be happier: even though we were an hour late, she had kept the other passengers waiting because she knew we had a flight to catch up. This woman was an angel. She didn’t have to but she did. Faith in humanity? Seriously improved! We reached Luwuk where we boarded a plane to Makassar where we caught a plane to Jakarta. It wasn’t easy to say bye to M (he still has another month in Asia) but there was no turning back, job interviews, my couch, my friends and another adventure were waiting for me! 

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Togean islands: the wonderful place where I realized that I love snorkeling and that I’m ready to take my relationship with the ocean to the next level and (one day) learn diving… 

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Fact: up until a month ago, we had never heard of the Togean islands; But to be fair who has? Unless you specifically speak about (overcrowded) Bali, Java or Sumatra, Indonesia (for most people) seemed to be a mystery. Indo-what? Bali? Ah! But no complaint here: no better feeling than to actually visit countries that haven’t been completely taken over by tourists. You gotta love a well kept secret. To round up our A&M adventure, we were looking for a peaceful place to relax, swim, eat and repeat. Many travelers had recommended the Raja Ampat islands to us, popular but still peaceful and affordable… It sounded fantastically wonderful (almost too good to be true); we were playing with the idea of spending a few days there until we met a very nice traveler from West Papua in Yogyakarta. As much as he loved his island, he warned us that we would waste a lot of time (and money) trying to get to West Papua / the Raja Ampat islands for only three nights. In other words, this detour was only worth it if we had time… which we didn’t have! This was definitely a bummer (who does not want to spend time in paradise?) but luckily this fellow traveler had something in store for us! He knew that we were considering flying to Sulawesi, so why not check the Togean islands? A few google searches later, we knew that we had to go there.

Fast forward a few weeks, in the middle of the night with us thinking that we might die. Our new friends, the funnice Franco-Irish couple, took us along in their private car and what was supposed to be a good idea became a bad good idea.  A terrible idea, actually. Our driver picked us up at stupid o’clock, 2:30 to be exact and he looked… exhausted. Wait… was he really the guy who was supposed to drive us all the way to Ampana?! This couldn’t be right… We jumped in the car and after half an hour of trying to fall asleep, we realized that our driver had no problem to fall asleep and was struggling to stay awake. Suddenly he pulled over and got out of the car for what we thought was a toilet break. Think again… he came back and said: “sleep”. I beg your pardon… what? “Sleep”. We paid you a lot of money for you to take a nap. Sure, why not?! Let me think, still thinking, rethinking… This was not happening. We had a ferry to catch! M offered to drive and our young (exhausted) driver suddenly was wide awake. He wasn’t tired anymore. He jumped back behind the wheel and off we were (again). Since he was clearly not NOT tired, none of us could get some sleep and what should have been a comfortable drive turned into a tensed trip, every one of us hoping to make it safe and sound to Ampana. 

Surprisingly we reached the port to realize that our driver had dropped us off at the wrong port. Instead of bringing us to the ferry, he had taken us to a place where speed boats depart. We felt so angry to have been cheated, especially since we kept telling him that we had to catch a ferry. He left before we could ask him to take us to the right place so we were stuck where more expensive boats were leaving from. Fucktastic! You gotta love such morning starts… NOT. After letting my frustration out, we started to look around to weigh our options and found the best solution 1) take an expensive cab to go to the right departure place and spend 6 hours on a ferry to Wakai, where we had to charter a private boat to go to Bolilanga resort – a place we had found on internet and looked fabulous 2) or take a more expensive speed boat, spend only 1 1/2 hours on that said boat and sleep one night on Kadidiri that offers cheap accommodation before heading to Bolilanga… our lack of sleep surely influenced our decision. There was no way we were putting ourselves through a 6-hour ferry trip and option 2 was unanimously chosen. Our A&M adventure has been all about traveling like locals, eating like locals, drinking like locals but on that day, we were ready to accept being called a… tourist! 

Thanks to ms. Ulfa, a wonderful sales lady in Ampana, we decided to overnight at Kadidiri Lestari. This was a cute place with cute little bungalows and a cute little beach. Owned by a local family, we felt welcome for the moment we stepped off the boat. Once we overlooked the depressing rubbish, that unfortunately spoils the shore and is a common problem for many islands around the globe, the swim to the corals was nice and snorkeling was even greater. We even spotted sea horses which definitely made our day! It was probably the first time I went snorkeling without any apprehension, the first time I actually enjoyed it fully, the first time I didn’t need M by my side to enjoy the underwater world. We even had the chance to try an Easybreath mask on! Now snorkeling became even easier and we knew right away that we needed one! Luckily Christmas is coming soon and we have been pretty good this year… Snorkeling became so much fun, we got up early the next day before taking the ferry to Katupat and went exploring again, this time closer to Kadidiri Paradise, another resort, slightly fancier than Lestari. Our short stay on this island was filled with laughter and warmth. The family who owned the resort was lovely and very helpful. Meals were included in the accommodation price and the food was simple, homemade and delicious. The four of us us loved this place and even tho we greeted not to have more time to explore the island, we couldn’t wait to discover Bolilanga. 

Since we met on the bus to Tentena, the four of us became a package and traveling together being a lot of fun, they decided to join us on our Bolilangan exploration. We were picked up by the resort staff and the first sight was beautiful: a long(ish) white sand beach, a pier to watch the sunset from and smiling people welcoming us. What not to love about this place? And our first impressions were not once disappointed. Our bungalow was very comfortable, clean and it felt like a home from home. The island has belonged to a local family for years and the owner, Alan was fabulous. He tried hard to make sure we were happy on his island. After meeting our Franco-Irish friends, we didn’t think we could meet some more amazing people! We were so wrong! We spent three days with a bunch of funny, funny, funny French travelers. We felt like we had known each other for years. This was really the perfect end of our backpacking adventure together, the perfect place to be among lovely people but also the perfect place to be sad as the time to say bye to M was coming up quick. Our plan was to do absolutely nothing but who were we kidding? We weren’t able to do nothing. We booked a day trip to different snorkeling spots, had lunch on Karina Beach (which was supposed one of the nicest Togean beaches but was actually a huge dump) and went swimming with Jelly fish in the Mariona lake. 

When we reached Reef #1, we enthusiastically jumped into the water… to be washed away far from our boat. Unfortunately any attempt to snorkel was washed away (literally), the current was insanely strong so our captain took us to Hotel California, an ocean shelter for fishermen surrounded by wonderful corals. I absolutely loved this place but I ended up being frustrated because some beautiful fish and plants were on the bottom of the ocean, too far for me to have a good look at them… This was when I realized that I was ready to take my relationship with the ocean to the next level: I needed to learn diving! After a delicious lunch on a (more than) trashed beach, our swim with jellyfish (if your remember, my last encounter didn’t go that well) in a warm lake was strangely amazing. Surrounded by thousands of blue and orange jellyfish, tiny or pretty big, I felt like I was floating in an enchanted Forrest surrounded by fairies. Surreal! A Perfect day with a perfect group, what a great send off! Even though I couldn’t believe it, my adventure has come to an end and it was time for me to start my long journey home. Next stop: Luzern.

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Central Sulawesi: Tentena or our lovely stopover while trying to reach Ampana!

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Leaving death behind was a relief and we were really looking forward to discovering Tentena in Central Sulawesi. We jumped on the only bus to Tentena for what became the longest bus ride we have had in a long time. A few pukers, a meeting with a funnice Franco-irish couple, 318 kilometers and 14 hours later, we reached the charming small town, very late at night. Because our party of 4 was motivated to walk to our hotel, 3 km became again for the night an acceptable walking distance. Ah the peer pressure! Our hotel was small and cute and the staff absolutely lovely. After a good night sleep, we had breakfast with the couple we had met on the bus and they invited us to drive with them to Ampana as they had hired a private car. As you know, we are all about traveling with public transportation but after “a few pukers, […] 318 kilometers and 14 hours”, we had the feeling we had earned the right to upgrade our mode of transportation. After roughing it up in Latin America and Indonesia, we desperately needed some lazy beach times and there was no chance we could turn down this proposition. Especially since this also meant that we would have more time in the Togean islands. Who are we to say no to this?!

I wasn’t sure whether I liked this couple a lot because she was French and got my (questionable) sense of humour or whether it was because they seemed to be an older version of us. Either way, the next days promised to be fun! We rented two scooters and Noni, our fabulous hotel manager, gave us tips to make the most of our day in the area. Surprisingly, there were cool places to check out. We knew that Tentena was located on lake Poso but we had not realized that there was so much to do and see over there! Bring it on then! We headed first to the Saluopa waterfalls and to be honest, we didn’t expect much. The past few months, people have recommended us several waterfalls and so far M and I have rarely been impressed. The ride to reach Saluopa was lovely and after stopping at a Balinese village on the way, we arrived at the wunder of Tentena. Still skeptical, we crossed a wooden bridge, walked through a tropical forest, “climbed” up the steep steps and there it was: an impressive waterfall! We couldn’t believe it: a beautiful waterfall was standing in front of us. A succession of little falls composed this “we would have been stupid to miss this” fall; we almost felt like we were back in Tad Sae, another stunning waterfall (in Laos). 

Very happy with our morning, we decided to have lunch on a beach… A beach, you ask? Yes, even tho Tentena is located on lake Poso, fresh water, it offered us the time of an afternoon the feeling to be on an exotic beach while strolling under the palm trees. On the way to the beach, the dirt road was quite challenging but fun. Who does not like anyway a good slippery road and potholes? Following Noni’s recommendation, we headed to Sirui Beach but didn’t stop there as it was described to us as extremely touristy. Instead, thanks to Noni, we opted for the beach where locals prefer to hang out. It felt so good to get rid of our shoes and walk barefoot in the warm white sand. We strolled along the lake. The water was lovely and the locals very friendly. As we were almost the only tourists, many families greeted us and wanted to talk to us… in Bahasa… What a wonderful experience to be surrounded by laughter and smiling faces, a warm feeling in our hearts that makes us love Sulawesi even more! We found a warung and enjoyed a noodly lunch with our feet in the sand. Priceless! Before going to our hotel, we had one more place to check out: the Pamona caves… Untouristy, this place was supposed to be a cool detour. We could not believe what we found: a cave that required us to kneel, almost crawl and bend our heads. I had never been so happy to be a tiny explorer! Luckily we had packed our headlamps and we followed a trail that took us down the naturally lighted cave, casually walking by bones. We were definitely hoping that those bones were not from lost explorers!

To celebrate our stopover in Tentena, which was (by the way) the best decision as the trip from Rantepao to Ampana would have been a long torturous one otherwise, we decided to treat ourselves to fresh fish. Noni, again, what to say she was our Tentena angel, sent us to Ongga Bale. We loved that place because there was a corner for locals where you sit on the floor around a table or a corner for tourists with chairs and tables. You can hopefully guess which corner we chose… (Which would mean that I do have regular readers. One can hope!). This place was exactly what we needed: we got to pick our fish from the lake, have it grilled and served with rice, vegetables and spicy sambal. Simple and tasty! Happy! After 176 days of roughing it, it was time for us to head to our last destination where we intended to relax, swim, eat and repeat. Next stop: Togean islands

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Tana Toraja or how we spent two enjoyable days with death

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“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens” – Woody Allen. Death can be scary, death can be a relief, death can be sad, death can be sudden but I never experienced it as being the main focus of somebody’s life.

When we landed in Makassar on Sulawesi island, we found a night bus to Rantepao, located in the Tana Toraja. After we found (again by chance) a cute cottage to stay, we took a well deserved nap. Night buses can be great but they can also be exhausting. It didn’t help our beauty sleep to have our driver play loud music for 7 hours. Once we caught up on some sleep, we were ready to talk about death, spend time with death and learn more about the Torajan traditions. A guide, living next to our cottage, came over, smiling and bluntly asked: “do you want to go to a funeral? A powerful woman’s funerals are taking place this week. I could take you there”. Anywhere else in the world, I would have looked at him like he was a mad man. However not in Tana Toraja, over here, death isn’t taboo like it could be in Switzerland and France and for the Torajans, strongly attached to their traditions, death is not an occasion for sorrow but a celebration. A funeral marks a family’s status: the wealthier you are, the longer the funeral will last, the more guests will come over, the more Buffaloes and pigs you will sacrifice.

As much as we were intrigued and wanted to soak the local traditions up, the sacrifices worried us. Luckily when we arrived, the first buffalo had already been sacrificed. For this funeral, our guide estimated that 10 to 15 buffalos and 100 pigs would be slaughtered. As animists, the Torajans believe that the soul of the sacrificed animal will carry the soul of the deceased to Puya, a second life. It sounded insane to us that so many animals would be killed within a day. Many people had come to attend day #2 of the funeral and pigs and water buffalos kept being brought in. The sound of the hundreds of distressed pigs was very overwhelming and we were grateful to be taken to a tent where some relatives invited to join them for tea and biscuits. Slightly away from the action, the family told us about Cornelia, the deceased. She had passed away 6 months ago but according to the Torajan believes, she was still alive, simply sick. Her death would be final once the funeral was complete. She had been embalmed, wrapped in cloth and kept in their tongkonan (their traditional house). This belief is combined with a practical and financial aspect: a funeral is expensive and the family must gather the funds before the burying ritual can happen.

As the sacrifices were about to start again, we moved on to go ahead our exploration into the Torajan culture. From Rantepao, it was easy to explore the south on day #1 and the north the following day. Our guide took us first to Suaya, a cliff grave, exclusively used to bury royals. As the royal family of Sangalla strictly kept the site for themselves, only 50 wooden effigies, known as Tau-tau, could be found on the balconies. Every effigy was placed on the balcony after a body was buried. Located among rice fields, the site was less impressive than what we expected but it was an interesting first introduction to the Torajan burial traditions. We jumped on our scooter and headed next to Tampangallo, a burial site with hanging graves in a natural cave. The place was quite spooky, less touristy than Londa, we were the only ones to visit the cave. Coffins had been placed on wooden frames but with the time, wood disintegrated and a stack of skulls now covers the floor. While leaving the site, we bumped into a villager who clearly was afraid of the cave. Our guide translated for us that this man was asking us whether we were scared. I laughed until I realized that this man was serious: he believed that spirits were haunting Tampangallo. After we assured him that we were fine, we left for Kambira, a (live growing) tree burial site. It was for me quite emotional, mostly because the deceased were only babies (who haven’t teethed yet and therefore still pure – another Torajan belief). Once the baby is placed inside, the grave is covered with fibres of the palm tree bark. Over the years, the baby blends in with the tree and the grave slowly disappears. It was a relief to leave the site and visit the village (finally something not related to death!) next to it. The tongkonans have a very special roof looking like a reversed boat and are always built with three rooms. The buffalo horns on the front of the house mean that funerals already took place.

Day #2 was also focused on death but this time in the north of Rantepao. We had rented a scooter for two days so we decided to go on a road trip, without a guide. As we somehow got lost (or took a scenic detour, as M put it) and after crashing a village party, we bumped into our Dutch neighbors. The 4 of us headed to Bori’, a burial site with graves in granite boulders  and ancient megaliths. The latter, called by Torajan simbuang batuwere erected over the centuries and reflect the families’ status: the higher, the better! Who said the size doesn’t matter? It was one of my favorite sites. While in Bori’, we found a tree with a few baby graves but this village seemed to have less infantile deaths, which made us feel much better. The next site, Lo’ko’ Mata, was also a burial site with boulder. Surrounded by a few mausoleums, the site was under construction as a grave was being dug inside the boulder. On the way to Batutumonga, which was supposed to offer a lovely view over the valley and surrounding mountains, we stopped at a “warung” on the side of the road. The view was absolutely stunning and after so many hours spent with death, it felt delightful to sit there and look at the peaceful scenery. Batutumonga was ridiculously touristy, four buses were parked and the view was blocked by trees. The only decent view point was located in a touristy restaurant and we quickly moved on! Our last meeting with death was in Pana where we visited the (supposedly) oldest graves in Sulawesi. The drive back to Rantepao turned into very adventurous ride: the paved became a slippery dirt road and several times, I had to walk down a steep hill. Tana Toraja has culturally been very interesting but it was good to leave death behind and head north to central Sulawesi. Next stop: Tentena…

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

One, two, three little lakes: welcome to Kelimutu

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5 hours to drive 50 km (yes, we did say that everything takes longer on Flores but really?!) turned an easy journey into an unnecessary dragging trip… Starting at stupid o’clock, I am known anyway for loving those ridiculous early starts, we reached Moni 10 hours later. We had to wait two hours for a ferry (we sure learnt patience over the past few months) and we were stuck an hour on the road due to a landslide. Locals seemed however prepared: popcorn and other finger foods were organized and sold to the unlucky crowd blocked on that mountain road. When we finally arrived in Moni, we were surprised to find a town that was built around one main street. Since we had no clue where to be dropped off, the bus driver unloaded us in the ‘center’. We had looked into booking a hostel (the only hostel in town actually) but we were told that it was located 3 kilometers out of town. I was in no mood to debate walking distances with M as I was hungry and tired. Since we both desperately needed food and M was not keen to see me change into a “hangry” monster, we stopped for some well deserved fried rice before we started looking for our home sweet home for the night. Life being quite amazing, the restaurant, owned by a lovely lady and her husband, had also two double rooms. Affordable and cute, we decided to stay there for our Moni / Kelimutu exploration.

Proud owners of a scooter for a day (definitely born to be wild), M and I headed to Mt. Kelimutu early enough to miss the usual midday clouds and late enough to avoid an unnecessary sunrise. Kelimutu was located at the end of a scenic drive and granted us an easy access to the park. This was only a short walk from the parking to the tri-colored crater lakes and we quickly made it to the view point over Tiwu Ata Polo. Known as the red lake, the lake of evil spirits was for us dark turquoise blue. It was beautiful even though we didn’t get to see it red. Rushing down to take pictures of the two other lakes before any cloud had the chance to ruin our shots, we were stopped by Indonesian families who (desperately) needed a selfie with us… Because why not? We had been warned by this phenomenon but with our dark skin and brown hair, we didn’t except to be treated like rock stars! 11 “missy, missy, photo?” later, we were finally able to have our first glance at Tiwu Ata Mbupu, known as the blue lake aka the lake of the ancestors’ souls and Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai, known as the green lake aka the lake of young people’s souls. Both lakes were blue, light or turquoise that day and it was really hard for us to comprehend how those lakes could be green, brown or even red! 

After cruising down onto the beautiful road back to Moni, we decided to make the most of our day and head to Paga and Koka beach. The latter was described to us as a deserted and secluded beach and we couldn’t wait to check it out. We stopped on the way to the Moni waterfall, a hidden fall where local families seemed to gather to cool off. Paga was supposed a cute village on a river but we didn’t find any proper village nor a river but the drive to Paga along the coast was fantasticGoing up and down on a windy road, under a beautiful blew sky, was priceless! A local guy recommended us to stop at a small restaurant on the side of the road to get some fresh grilled fish. We did as he said and we were served the most delicious tuna steak we got to try in a very long time! To finish this great day, we took the off road to Koka beach, keen to have a beach for ourselves… Imagine our surprise to be asked for an entrance fee, a parking fee and a mirador fee! What was supposed to be our Robinson Crusoe afternoon became an hour among screaming kids (happy kids tho), the beach bordered by vendors and restaurants. Don’t get me wrong: Koka beach was beautiful. Fact. It was just not as secluded as we were told and disappointment was quite big. The walk up to the mirador was easy tho steep and on very wobbly stairs (made with bamboos and sand bags. Safety first). The view over the two bays was gorgeous and peaceful… until a tsunami of local tourists made their way up. We knew then that it was time for us to leave. 

Flores island was incredible and fun to explore for 10 days. The drives on the island, tho (very)long, strenuous and at times smelly, were extremely rewarding. M and I had the feeling to be explorers the same way we felt in Central America. We barely saw any tourist on the buses and our Bahasa basic knowledge became quite handy! We simply loved our time on this island. However, after a short stop over in Maumere, we were ready to discover another island. The town itself was not that special but we met a lovely Australian traveler and our only evening in town was spent laughing and eating Bakso: in other words we had a great send off! Sulawesi, here we come. Next stop: Tana Toraja!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Riung or the forgotten paradise of Flores!

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 Riung or not Riung? This was the question… M and I discussed a lot about it as it was clearly out of our way. It looked amazing on google and we were keen to check it out. However since it was located up north, it would have cost us three precious days of our time on Flores. Without having a definite answer, we left LB and headed East. Coz… why not? This wasn’t the first time we sat on a bus without knowing what was coming next. We jumped on a bus to Bajawa, a hub to either drive to Ende / Moni or head to Riung. We had found a hotel there and we settled down for the night, hoping to have an answer by the morning. Bajawa was small and I somehow liked it and disliked it at the same time. As soon as we stepped out of the bus, some men made me feel like a piece of meat, being disrespectful even tho I had made the effort to wear pants, long sleeves and a scarf on my head and it felt very uncomfortable. I guess this is the price to pay to visit less touristic areas and men still think “middle-agely” backward. I didn’t like the way they made me feel but we weren’t about to let it stop us to explore the town – tho I did consider hiding in my hotel room until the next morning. A stroll through Bajawa, a delicious Bakso at a local warung and some talks later, we had more or less taken our decision: we were going to Riung. 

During the long (5 hours to drive 70 km…) bus ride to Riung (we never made so many detours to load and unload passengers! We have seen villages that probably had almost never been visited by foreigners! Exciting!), we talked to the driver and he warmly recommended us a homestay that was cheap and on the water. We weren’t sure what to expect but after 5 hours sharing a bus with onions and heavy smokers, we were ready to accept pretty much anything to escape the smell. Ah! The joy of riding local! The old man who welcomed us at the homestay surprisingly spoke English very well and even though, our room had no proper shower (a bucket was provided. What else do you need?), we immediately loved the place. I wasn’t sure what I had pictured but Riung was nested in the woods, a few families living by the pier and the others living deeper inland. A walk around town (or into the woods) was quickly made and we found a restaurant that served us delicious grilled squids. A Spanish couple joined us and it felt great to be able to speak Spanish again. How we have missed this language! 

After a wonderfully (much needed) long and peaceful night, we enthusiastically boarded a fisherman boat. We should have stopped by now having expectations as a few ‘wonderful’ and ‘unmissable’ places were very disappointing along the way but that morning we couldn’t help it: our hopes were high. Our host had organized a tour to the 24 islands that composed the 17-island marine park. Our captain couldn’t speak a word English therefore we had no choice but to practice our Bahasa. Win win! The captain had picked 4 islands for us to visit that day. We loved the first one, Ontoloe, as it was inhabited by fruit bats, also known as flying foxes. It was surreal to see so many giant bats outside of a cave. We somehow had always associated bats with caves and we were flabbergasted to see so many bats gathered on the mangrove trees. The rest of the day was dedicated to snorkeling and we enjoyed very much our time on (around) islands # 2 (Nunsa Tiga), 3 (Nunsa Bampa) and 4 (Nunsa Rutong). The corral was fantastically colorful and we swam among lots of different types of fish. I didn’t expect so many varieties! 

One of my highlights of the day, strangely, was my scary encounter with a deadly white banded sea snake who swam towards me while I was walking on the rocky shore with water up to my ankles. Panic and an almost fall on my butt was of course involved but I was extremely (again strangely) happy to meet such a beautiful venomous snake (after panic left me). The scenery surrounding us was absolutely breathtaking and even tho we were again disappointed by the dirtiness of the beaches themselves, the colors of the water from dark blue to turquoise blue were wonderful and it felt magical to swim in those waters and enjoy a fresh grilled fish on Nunsa Tiga, deliciously prepared by our captain. It was hard to jump back on our boat to head back to Riung. 

After such a beautiful time in the 17-island marine park, it was time for us to move on as we could have easily stayed here a few days longer. However, Indonesian authorities need to understand the necessity and the urgency for his people to respect our environment. Getting rid of garbage from a driving bus, leaving a can of coke on the curb or throwing plastic bags and other rubbish in the sea are unfortunately too common over here and we can only hope that Indonesia, among other countries, will take the needed measures to educate its citizens to stop this giant littering! It cannot be that stepping on a deserted island means stepping in a public trash. Rant over. Next stop: Kelimutu!Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Meet and greet: the fierce Komodo dragons

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It sure took me a while (they do say that you are what you eat and I eat snails so…) but I can say that I have finally fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine: I hiked on Rinca Island among the Komodo dragons! Spielberg would have been proud of me, I thought while taking zillions of pictures of those majestic creatures! I couldn’t tell you when I first virtually met those dangerous-looking carnivores but I knew right away that I had to meet them, not in a zoo, not in a “sanctuary”. No, I had to meet them on their territory in Indonesia. While planing this 6-month backpacking trip, M and I realized that we shared the same dream. It was therefore time to meet and greet the largest living lizards in the world. 

After a short layover in Ubud, we found a cheap(ish) plane to Labuan Bajo (thereafter as LB), known hub to the Komodo National Park, where we were hoping to find an affordable day trip. When we reached LB airport, M had to make me walk to the center (what else?)… Spending 1$ on a cab is apparently not as fun as having your girlfriend moan in the scorching sun.  Walking distance and flat / downhill he said… Three kilometers later and a steep hill to go (up) over, we reached the center, dying to sit down with a cold beer and feet up but life had other plans for us. LB was one street with a lot (and I mean a lot) of agencies, keen to sell us pricey trips. Our first impression of LB was quite negative as we were tired, unable to find a place to stay overnight (either fully booked or too expensive) and were given unrealistic quotes to fulfill our dream… until we met Heyman. 

He was funny, smart and quickly understood that we couldn’t afford a private chauffeur (most of the tourists on Flores seem to hire a private chauffeur to explore the island), 2 to 3-day cruises to the Komodo island (you apparently need to “hitchhike” a ride from the ferry from Lombok to Gilli) nor a hotel on the hill with view over the bay (as tempting as the infinity pool sounded, Ubud did enough damage to our daily budget). Heyman took us to a hostel next door (we must have clearly overlooked it) and even tho we were skeptical, we followed him. What didn’t we have to lose anyway? To our surprise, we found a comfortable, clean and cheap hostel (Bajo Nature) with a big dorm in LB! He also booked us on a day trip to the Rinca island (one of the few islands inhabited by Komodo dragons) to go on a 2-hour hike, trying to spot dragons (the ones hanging out by the kitchen mentioned on many reviews on Google obviously didn’t count). The day trip also included some snorkeling. What began as an exhausting and challenging day ended as a very happy one with some Bakso shared with some locals on a curb, talking Bahasa… From disliking to loving LB, who would have thought?

We were excited (understatement of the year) to board our boat the next day. After all, it is not everyday that you wake up and can tell yourself: today I’m crossing an item off my bucket list! When we arrived on Rinca island, we were given clear safety instructions by the Rangers who welcomed us at the pier. We were taken to the office where we paid our (unnecessary expensive) entrance fee and followed our ranger guide to the kitchen for our first glance at the “mastodons”. I probably cannot describe how I felt when we were looking for them, thrilled and scared, happy and intrigued. Some facts about my new friends: fact #1 Komodo dragons are venemous and dangerous. They can use their sharp teeth to shred you into pieces and if for some reason, you would survive this attack, you would most probably be dead within 24 hours of blood poisoning. This sounded quite bad but luckily for us fact #2: dragons cannot be bothered to hunt or move during the day as it is too hot; they prefer to lie in the shade. Fact #2 definitely made our hike more enjoyable as we had to watch our steps not to come too close to one but we knew that no predator was actively hunting us. This was a relief as there was no way we could have outrun a dragon because fact #3 they can run up to 20km/h. Aggressive and quick: the perfect deadly combination!

The hike itself was beautiful, the long trail took us through a forest and up a hill with a breathtaking view over the island and the bay. Before starting our hike, the guide repeated to us that we were not in a zoo and there was therefore no guarantee to see dragons. He asked us however to watch our steps as 30 to 40 Komodo dragons were living in the area. Their camouflage skin could make it difficult for us to spot them in the woods but they would be around. Imagine our surprise when we bumped into 3 of them! The guide was quite surprised, he didn’t expect to see that many and the group was over the moon! After a few mandatory pictures safely taken, we kept hiking to go back to the camp where our captain was waiting for us. 

Before heading back to LB, our captain stopped at Pempe and Kelor and even though we were not planing on snorkeling, our French tripmates convinced us to put our masks and snorkel on and swim to the reef. We are no snorkeling expert but over the past 6 months we have tried ourselves to snorkeling in different oceans and seas and this was probably the best snorkeling we have ever had. So many colorful fish were surrounding us, swimming around, above, under and with us. It was absolutely surreal. The peaceful feeling the underwater world gave us was priceless. We were grateful to the French couple as we would have otherwise missed wonderful encounters with the underwater world. The corral was very colorful (some part was dead but we could somehow see some yellow corral found its way back to life) and sheltered so many creatures: sea stars, nemo, mantas and anemones. We couldn’t have asked for a better day to fulfill our dream. 

Time now to see what Flores has to offer. Next stop: Riung and its 17- island marine park! 

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem! 

Ubud: the town where…

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… We were asked 192 times if we needed a taxi and 67 times if we would like a massage. In any other country, this would have been borderline harassment but most of them were so smiley, we couldn’t feel any anger or irritation. We kept smiling back, answering “Tidak, terima kasih” (no, thanks) 192 times, getting surprised looks to our Bahasa answer. 

… We were asked countless (we unfortunately lost counts) times where we were from! M considered getting a t-shirt saying “we are from Switzerland and France, no we don’t need a taxi, no massage for now but thanks”. We would save all parties some precious time we could spend daydreaming during our stroll in Ubud instead of answering the same questions over and over again. 

… I had my first conversation in Indonesian. Though very short and very basic, this conversation felt very special. Our teacher in Jakarta would have been proud of us! It took us a while to understand the questions and it felt great to understand a whole sentence. Our efforts (we downloaded an app with flash cards) were paying off and we couldn’t wait to speak more Bahasa! 

… We got a $6 massage, painfully fantastic but hey no pain, no gain! But if I thought that seeing my husband (what? I’m living my fantasy while on the road as this is better for our interactions with the locals. We wouldn’t want to offend locals by telling that M is my boyfriend, would we?) being massaged by another woman was weird in Cambodia, seeing him being massaged by a man was even weirder! Ah! Don’t you love those couple massages?!

… I almost died: traffic wasn’t bad really but I got somehow confused and after dodging a scooter, I almost got hit by two others, going the other way. M almost died of a heart attack. Oops! 

Even tho we had decided not to explore Bali as I had heard it was pricey and over touristy (plus M had gone there last year already), M decided to take me to Ubud. We had two free days on our way to Labuan Bajo and since I was dying to have a good massage and have a stroll through rice fields, Ubud seemed the obvious choice. Our volcanic group jumped onto a ferry at Banyuwangi on Java and headed to Bali. The ride was easy, quick and cheap: within an hour we were in Bali (THAT easy!). After some arguing with a dodgy hustler in Bahasa and English, we found a bus that would take us together with our German companion to Denpasar. It was that time again to say bye to our two French friends, who were heading to the northern coast, while we were heading East. Time went bye too quickly and it was a shame to have to say bye to Claire and Kevin, two funnice (remember? Funny and nice!) travelers. 

Of course, instead of driving us to Denpasar, the bus driver stopped us at a random place where we were met by a greedy taxi driver. However as avid users of maps.me (the best existing app for travelers) we (read: M) knew exactly where we were and therefore knew which fare was acceptable. We started to joke with our greedy driver while negotiating hard with him who actually turned out to be a funny character. He settled for a good price and to conclude our contract, we improvised a karaoke session in Bahasa (what else?) while driving to Ubud. Just another confirmation that I’m a poor singer, no matter the language I am singing in *sigh*. He took us to a lovely place we had booked on Traveloka (the best app to travel through Indonesia to find cheap air fares and hotel rooms). We started our short stay in Ubud by doing absolutely nothing, chilling by our pool and treating ourselves to delicious sushi at Rouge

Our only full day in Ubud was spent strolling through town (declining all the taxi offers and collecting the massage flyers), trying some street food (faaaaaaaar away from the strip), going for a walk through some rice fields and chilling some more by the pool. If there were less tourists and Ubud was more affordable, I could easily fall in love with this hustling and bustling town but alas this wasn’t the case and it won’t ever be the case anymore. For any tourist willing to spend more than 30$ a day, this place has some hidden gems that can be accessed given a nice fee! This lovely day was celebrated with a well deserved and cheap massage. 

After enjoying Ubud (which was definitely not a budget friendly layover for us), we couldn’t wait to jump on the next plane that would take us closer to the reason we picked Indonesia: a long life dream was about to be fullfilled. Komodo dragons, here we come! Next stop: Labuan Bajo! 

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Our volcanic time on Java: Mt. Bromo and Mt. Ijen

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When we booked our train ticket to Probolinggo (or Probo for the cool kids), we were told that there were only economy tickets available. Perfect, thought the budget traveler in me. Damn, thought the girl who just left her Swiss and Jakartan comforts. We knew that we had had luck with our train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta and we really didn’t know what to expect. It was… an experience in itself. People were very friendly but the trip was a pain: we were delayed without any explanation and the seats were very tiny! Your knees were basically kissing your neighbors’ knees and there was no space to put your hand luggage. But as a famous comedian said once, always look on the bright side and it could have indeed been worse! At least we were in a car where the AC was working. We were however happy to reach Probo, especially M and his long legs. Since we missed the last public bus, we had to organize a private vehicle to Bromo and that’s when things got… interesting. 

We had met several travelers at our hostel that were on the same train and we knew that we were were already 6 so this should help with our negotiations, we thought. When we reached Probo, two of them decided to travel the next day so we were down to 4. Don’t ask me why but I looked at a girl from another group and at once, I somehow knew she was French. We smiled at each other and started to talk in French. 8 of them were also traveling to Bromo. Perfect. Negotiation power going up again, we thought! That’s when things got even more interesting. Two French decided to join a very expensive private car and we lost the 4 travelers we had met at our hostel. We took two taxis to go to the bus station and they were apparently unloaded for annoying behavior. The driver simply refused the fare and they had to find another taxi… Oh… 6 of us were driven to a non-bus station (really?) where greedy travel agents were happily waiting for us. We were clearly stuck in Probo and they knew it…

Apparently the Bromo mafia is known. All agents, guides, homestay are connected and let’s say that they can royally f*** the tourists over. Luckily we found an agent who seemed reasonable enough. We negotiated what we found to be a good rate with Ijen and the ferry ride to Bali included (from our calculations we were maybe 2 to 3$ more expensive than if we would have done it independently). Two French decided to do it independently and rode with us to Bromo and 4 of us went for the package. Yes, we would have preferred to do it on our own but when hassles are reduced for a few dollars, there is no reason to stubbornly go ourselves through unnecessary hoops! Our homestay was fully booked and the 6 of us ended up having a hotel for ourselves! Now we are talking! 

The French members of our ‘volcanic’ group had done some research and they had found a way to hike up Mt. Penanjakan to watch the sunrise over Mt. Bromo. It was an easy hike and we were glad to have done it independently as it was (what a surprise) overrated. First of all, sunrise was NOT over Bromo but slightly away from it… Second of all, no guide was needed as it was an easy hike up to the view point. That said, we enjoyed very much the view (better in our opinion once the sun was up) and we were glad that we didn’t miss Bromo. Plan would have been to walk down to the moon valley and up to Mt. Bromo but M and I (we are clearly getting old) decided to head back to our hotel for a power nap before breakfast. For our defense, the past 5 months we walked up and down a fair amount of volcanoes and we didn’t feel the need to breathe Bromo’s toxic fumes. 

Breakfast was a huge disappoint but luckily our driver took us to the office back in Probo before going to Ijen and the guy who sold us the package was very honest and paid for our breakfast while waiting for the shuttle to Ijen. Our volcanic group of 4 (we lost two French who decided to go independent) and a german guy arrived at our homestay (Indonesian people need to rethink the concept of homestay) which look like a motel really. Basic and good enough for our short night. To hike Mt. Ijen up to reach the rim before heading down into the abyss, we woke up at midnight. Yes starting at decent hours would be half the fun. The trail was steep, slippery, narrow, just what we needed while hiking with a gas mask on (we were at times surrounding by toxic fumes coming from the burning sulfur) and had only dim head torches to guide our way. 

At first, I couldn’t breathe and I considered turning around. It was very scary and I wasn’t taken seriously until M realized that my mask was broken. For once I wasn’t a drama queen but a hiker about to die of asphyxia (dramatic effect? Check!). We started our way down, sharing our trail with dumb tourists (read wearing fliflops, no mask) and sulfur miners (a miner can carry up to 90 kg of sulfur out of the womb of the volcano,with little protective gear. The life expectancy rarely reaches 50 years). However we made it to the bottom and we were immediately rewarded by the sight of the Ijen volcano’s blue fire! We saw a lot of idiots literally walking into the fires for the sake of a good picture. I’m the first one to look for a fantastic composition for a wonderful shot but when this endangers any life and could result in having Ijen closed to visitors, this is not acceptable and I’ll have to be happy with a distant shot. Not perfect but this will have to do! 

Before starting our descent to the parking lot, we waited for the sun to come up to see the blue lagoon. It was difficult for us to believe that the dark hole we just came up from was about to turn into a lagoon but after a few minutes, there it was. We were probably a few meters from it while we were in the abyss but the darkness and the fumes were hiding it the whole time! Incredible! The lake, tho heavily acidic, looked turquoisely inviting but no thank you! Instead we hiked down, surprised by the wonderful landscapes surrounding us. We didn’t except to find a brethtaking view over the valley and surrounding volcanoes since we hiked up in the pitch-black night but the descent turned into a real treat for our eyes. We would highly recommend this hike! Thanks Java for a great time! Next stop: Ubud, Bali. 

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!