South Sulawesi: Pantai Bira

It’s been quite a battle to get this post online – the internet in Sulawesi leaves a lot to be desired!

Moving on from Komodo National Park posed a significant challenge for us. What could possibly match the experience we had here and not just be a disappointment? We knew three things for sure, at least: one, that we had a solid five weeks left in Indonesia (having needed to book a departure flight in order to extend our visa). Two, that there was still far more to see in this vast, logistically-challenged country than five weeks would allow. And three, that our thirst for amazing diving was nowhere near slaked.

Frankly it’s mostly the diving that is keeping us enthralled with Indonesia. The country is otherwise lacking in charm, culture, and cuisine compared to our previous locales (namely Vietnam and Thailand). This is a harsh oversimplification – the people here are friendly as anywhere, beautiful beaches and volcano panoramas abound, and the living is the cheapest we’ve yet encountered.

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Indonesia may not be perfect, but it does have views like this.

So what do I have to complain about? I suppose a lot of it actually comes down to food, as trite as that may seem. Cuisine and its surrounding culture is a big part of what we enjoy experiencing while traveling. Heading off to an unknown destination, having no idea where to stay or if we’ll be able to communicate or if there’s anything interesting to do, is much more fun if we know that no matter what we’ll be able to find a delicious and/or adventurous meal when we arrive. Vietnam and Thailand provided this in spades; Indonesia just doesn’t. This is no doubt due at least in part to more scant conditions, but regardless it’s a real aspect of traveling here for us.

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a typical Indonesian dinner

To be sure: we’ve found some very tasty food here in Indonesia. Grilled chicken and fish, in particular, can be satisfyingly fresh and delicious in a way that farm-raised stuff you get back home just can’t be. Some of the homemade sauces and sembal are remarkably flavorful (and powerfully spicy), and nowhere have we had such perfectly prepared tofu and tempeh, it’s really good. But ultimately most meals center around a large scoop of rice with a modest amount of the aforementioned items and perhaps some boiled veggies, every time, and after a while it does get old. The various vibrant soups and salads of mainland southeast Asia are sorely missed. Much as it pains me to say this we’re thankful to have found some standout Western cuisine in both the Gilis and Labuanbajo.

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this meal was pretty good: peanutty gado-gado, sauteed water spinach, and grilled barracuda.

Okay, enough on food and back to our conundrum of where to go. We wanted more diving, and thanks to Indonesia being quite cheap if nothing else, we could afford to do more so why stop now. We looked into a range of possible destinations. The Indonesian archipelago is literally swimming in reefs: Raja Ampat, Alor, the Bandas, Sulawesi… we narrowed down the list by what’s affordable (Raja Ampat off of Papua is amazing but also exclusive) and weather this time of year (not a good time for Alor or the Bandas), leaving us with Sulawesi – the immense contorted island that sits between Borneo and Papua and has several locations reportedly good for diving.

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the beautiful waters of Sulawesi

We booked a flight from Bajo to Makassar, the main city in the southwest corner of Sulawesi. A more adventurous and thrifty traveler – or any local – would take one of the large ferries that connect Flores to Sulawesi. This option is approximately free and comes with a corresponding level of comfort and accommodation. Having experienced 7 hours on a similar boat the prospect of a 24 hour journey was a bit too daunting for us. At least we made the ‘local’ journey on the way out!

The island of Sulawesi is large – dimensionally comparable to the UK or California, as a couple examples. Using the cool website of MAPFrappe, which I just discovered for this purpose, I can illustrate this for you by placing a scale outline of weirdly-shaped Sulawesi anywhere on the globe:

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courtesy of MAPFrappe and Google Maps

Now imagine getting around the UK or California, but all the roads are narrow, extremely contorted, and strewn with everything from goats to gravel. Aggressive dodging and weaving lets you max out around 60 kmh (37 mph). As you can imagine it takes a little while to get from A to B. Doing so being one of 10 people packed into a 7 seat car is neither unusual nor particularly comfortable. On these lengthy drives you are subject to the whim of the driver for whether you stop for food or a toilet. As mentioned before, these guys can survive indefinitely on coffee and cigarettes. Yup, you get to sit there while your fellow passengers smoke, but no matter, the outside air is often just as foul from the countless roadside trash fires. But everyone is smiling and friendly, and the driver – when he does stop – is happy to help you order something off a nearby grill to sustain you.

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along for the ride in Makassar
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rural roadside Sulawesi on the way to Pantai Bira

We were happy to finally arrive at our first Sulawesian destination of Pantai Bira following a pair of flights, an overnight in Makassar, and 8 hours of driving between taxi, motor-rickshaw, and public car. The distance we covered over land on Sulawesi was pitifully small compared to the whole island, leaving us pondering the remainder of our traveling here (foreshadowing: more flights in our future).

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Makassar’s motor rickshaws: you are the bumper!

Bira is a quiet oceanside town populated primarily by goats. Cats and humans tie for second-most. It is a tourist destination for – you guessed it – diving! Compared to the dive destinations we’d been to so far, however, Bira is far less busy. We weren’t prepared for how challenging it would be to even find an outfit to dive with, having just come from the intense competition of Komodo and the Gilis. Other tourist amenities were also missed such as wifi (which we knew going in) and options for meals (a lot more scarce than expected).

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Bira’s main drag. this photo shows pretty much everything going on in town

The coastline here is the standard Indonesian mix we are now used to of glittering blue waters, green jungle, and garbage everywhere. We’ve been told several times that everything in Indonesia ends up either in a trash fire or the ocean and it’s no exaggeration – there’s no infrastructure in place for anything else. It’s sad and frustrating, especially since one of the biggest sources of garbage – plastic water bottles – are a necessary evil for everyone including ourselves. We have filters and purification tablets but that doesn’t help when the tap is part saltwater, or laced with toxic minerals.

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this is the stuff we crop out of most photos (and it can be much worse than this)

Because we were only competing with about six other tourists for ten times as many guesthouse rooms, we succeeded in securing a relatively nice and spacious hilltop room sporting a real toilet and sink, plus a massive resident gecko that, in exchange for leaving equally massive droppings around, kept the place free of creepy-crawlies. Armed with a rental scooter we set out the next day to find a dive shop. Easier said than done! We visited a couple locations in the area home to recommended outfits but nobody was home. Surprisingly – given how things typically work here – email came through where face to face didn’t. (We had earlier purchased a data sim card for Elaine’s phone, thankfully, and so we could claw a little into the internet from time to time.) We got in touch with Johan who runs Sulawesi Dive Adventure and the next day joined some fellow Korean and Russian divers on a small converted fishing boat.

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sunset on Bira’s quiet beach

The diving here came nowhere close to comparing to Komodo. This was not helped by the folks running the operation, who were disorganized, non-communicative, and not very good at finding the best sites, all on account of the regular divemaster taking some time off from work. Still, we found we were confident in our ability by now to take full responsibility for ourselves and our safety – had we encountered this situation earlier on we would have been quite uncomfortable. We learned that we really wanted our own dive computers, to be further independent and safe; and we did get at least a few dives that were really great.

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our dive boat while in Bira
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a cute little hermit crab on the beach

The best dive in Bira by far was the “Great Wall” off of Kambing Island which was a stunningly clear drift along a vertical reef wall extending below us to perhaps 60 meters; tuna swam back and forth past us through huge schools of triggerfish and fusiler as we cruised by. A venomous sea snake hunted through the corals. Cute reef fish, caring nothing for gravity, oriented themselves whichever way made the reef ‘down’ – in most cases, vertically, and when below an overhang, inverted. At one point a large group of sizeable blackfin barracuda slowly approached, and then as if we were a pylon of a race course or a judge in a parade, made a 180 around us a mere arm’s length away before meandering off.

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hanging out off of Kambing Island after a great dive

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We had a few highlights on some other dives as well. A giant bumphead parrotfish, several green sea turtles (big ones and juveniles), many whitetip sharks (again, big ones and juveniles), some big cowtail rays hiding in the sandy bottom, and a wee little baby banded sea snake thinner than a pencil figuring out how to swim and find dinner. Other dives, however, were marred by an abundance of floating trash, very low visibility, or some less than stellar guiding by our inexperienced crew. We had hoped to see some hammerheads or mantas, having read they might be around, but no luck. Overall we decided that coming to Bira wasn’t really worthwhile compared to other areas in Indonesia, but we made the best we could of it once we were there!

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between dives wetsuit photo op

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Other items of interest in Bira: watching cute little goat kids gallivanting around, strolling the beaches if you can dodge the trash, and checking out the local boatbuilding. This regional trade of fabricating traditional wooden boats and ships is still done on a regular basis at scales larger than the small fishing craft we’d seen so far. Scaffolding is erected directly over the beach where the vessel is pieced together by bending and pinning planks into place over a wooden frame. The results are beautiful wide-bellied hulls – some over 30m in length, I’d guess – which are fitted out in the nearby harbor to order.

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So after a few days diving followed by internetless lounging (cards and books, mostly) we were ready to move on. We had, by this point, decided that working our way up by land along Sulawesi wasn’t going to happen –  not much of interest to us and too much driving. We booked a cheap flight from Makassar up to Manado in the northeast of Sulawesi, an area that we hoped would suit us with its combination of tropical islands, reefs, jungle, and mountains. Another bumpy cramped car ride back from Bira brought us back to the hectic sprawl of Makassar and a comfy recharge-and-plan stay at a fancy hotel (TV and room service, wahoo!)

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Specifics: if you go to Bira, definitely get a sim card first so you can use data and make local calls. It’ll be really hard to arrange things otherwise especially if your host doesn’t speak English. There are plenty of guesthouse options in town, none close to being full when we were there, though many people stay instead at one of the beachside resorts or bungalows to the east or west of town and you can probably get a good deal on one of those too if you shop around. Cosmos (beachside resort) was cute and popular. We dove with Sulawesi Dive Adventure – the owner Johan was helpful and responsive over email and based on reviews I expect diving with his normal guides is better than what we got. You might also try Bira Dive Camp which seemed somewhat busy, at least. But I think you’re better off going somewhere other than Bira unless you’re in Makassar, short on time, and it’s your only chance to see sharks.

Awe-Inspiring Komodo

Our boat pulls up over the dive site, fighting for position against a strong westward current. Deep blue water gives way to lighter turquoise: we’re over the submerged seamount called Castle Rock. The surface is energetically swirling as the tidal flow washes over and around the big underwater obstacle. One of the crew calls out – up ahead, fish are jumping. Something below is making them nervous. We draw near, checking our gear, and then follow our guide into the water. We must descend quickly, kicking into the current, aiming for the sweet spot referred to as the “split” where the current parts around the rocky reef. Being too slow means missing this prime viewing location – or worse, being pushed clear off the dive site and into the blue. We’re on target, however, and I’m doing my best to kick efficiently without sucking down a lot of air. As we drop I spot first one shark, then another, and then several more. Seconds later we’re clinging to the rocks at 22 meters, being shoved around as the Flores Sea washes over us. Immediately ahead no fewer than eight whitetip reef sharks are cruising around in the current among huge schools of fusilier, surgeonfish, and trevally. We found the action – welcome to Komodo!

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reefs everywhere!

Be warned: pretty much all we did in Labuanbajo was dive. It was absolutely amazing and we have almost no photos of it to share with you. What few underwater photos we have come woefully short of representing the spectacle. So I must resort to some wordy descriptions which I apologize for. But if you imagine the most extravagant and vibrant fish-packed reefs, whether from photos or aquariums or the Planet Earth TV series, what we saw over our time here in no way fell short. By comparison to the Gilis which were relaxed and entertaining, diving here was far more intense and awe-inspiring. Fish were much bigger and more plentiful, the range of life large and small was mind-boggling, and the currents and topography were absolutely wild.

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Labuanbajo: cute, grungy, and bustling

But first, before we did any of this, we arrived in Labuanbajo with no plans on record. We secured a room and then walked the busy little front street of the town, eyeing innumerable dive operators offering everything from quick day trips to week-long liveaboard experiences. We had come to realize by this point that July and August are the high season here so finding lodging was tough and relatively expensive. These being the circumstances we thought a liveaboard for a few days might make a lot of sense, and so we shopped around for one. Now, we knew the diving here to be challenging and as freshly minted advanced open water divers we didn’t want to get in over our heads. We wanted an outfit that would be able to gauge and adjust for our abilities. We settled on Blue Marlin Komodo – though a bit more expensive than others, I believed they would give us both a safe and rewarding experience, and the food onboard promised to be excellent as well.

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our liveaboard boat, the Ikan Biru

We signed up for three nights on the liveaboard, and after a day off between travels, set off from Labuanbajo into Komodo National Park on the Ikan Biru (“Blue Fish”). What followed was a wonderfully busy few days of world-class diving, beautiful coastal panoramas, delicious meals, comfortable siestas, and quiet open-air nights on the covered top deck of a great little boat. There were four other guests along with us (all awesome people) and three dive staff plus the gracious local crew. We loved every minute of it! Our fellow divers were Laura, from our recent home of Oakland, CA; Sophia, from Denmark; Lars, of Sweden; and Lars’ daughter Freja who is a scuba force of nature with 100 dives at the age of 17. Sean our liveaboard director made us feel super prepared for each dive, and Edwin and Alex were both fantastic guides.

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view from the deck

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lunch onboard beats most of our land-based meals!
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relaxing after a dive and hearty breakfast
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sunset (or sunrise? can’t recall) from one of our moorings

Each day on board followed the same routine. Wake up with the sunrise, grab some coffee and fruit, and brief the first dive. Hop on the skiff to zip out from wherever we were moored or anchored, dive, and return for breakfast including freshly baked bread (a rare treat in Indonesia at all, let alone onboard a small boat). Rest, brief, dive #2, then eat lunch; rest, brief, and dive #3; rest and watch the sunset, brief, and dive #4 at night; dinner, maybe a beer, and then, being quite exhausted, go to sleep. During downtime: chat with our new friends, oogle the scenery as we moved from place to place, flip through fish ID books and try to remember all of the cool things we saw during the last dive.

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Laura prepares her gear on our dive skiff
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Elaine gears up on deck, with our guide Edwin in the background
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Sean briefs a night dive as the sun goes down
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Sean drew great briefing maps before each dive

I made a total of 18 dives here in Komodo, and Elaine 15, so there’s no way we can relate them all (at least here). They were all amazing and ran the gamut from serene sunset and night dives to fast, adrenaline pumping drift dives or splits like Castle Rock. Most of these were during our liveaboard trip, but we liked diving here so much (and had some time to burn while we were renewing our visa) that we went back out on some day outings. So, too much to cover, or really even fully absorb yet. I will retell our most epic single dive, however; this occurred at a site called The Cauldron, early on in our working up the Komodo learning curve.

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The Ikan Biru from the sunny foredeck

The Cauldron is located in a channel between two islands in the north area of Komodo. There is a large bowl-like depression maybe 40m in diameter at the narrowest part of the channel. When the tide is falling the current flows eastward through the channel, over the Cauldron (churning up the surface) and out through a necked down area called “the shotgun”. The fast current makes for an exciting dive and also – we hoped – attracts awesome large stuff like manta rays. The dive plan is as follows: drop in west of the channel and explore the mix of sand and corals there; enter and check out the Cauldron for a little while; exit via the shotgun, hanging on with reef hooks at opportune times; and then swim perpendicular to the current to get out of it as it pushes us east, wrapping up in a soft coral garden called China Shop.

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The Cauldron lies below this channel that funnels the tide

Things started out as briefed; Elaine and I backrolled off the boat with our guide Edwin and dove down to mosey between coral bommies, looking at groupers, morays, and turtles. Being a little ways away from the channel we only felt the current as a slight tug. After ten minutes or so we were swimming across an open area from one coral group to another when Edwin pointed ahead and waved his arms. What we really hoped to see, but did not expect to as they are scarce this time of year: a manta ray!

This is perhaps the most graceful thing I have ever seen. The manta slowly approached us out of the blue as we hovered and watched. Whether it was curious or we were simply in its way, I don’t know, but it cruised within a few meters and slowed. It was like an encounter with an alien species, or rather, a native species with us as the aliens. Nothing quite looks as comfortable with its surroundings as a manta ray does. After a few moments of checking each other out it calmly banked away on its huge wings and glided off. Huzzah! We were all psyched – everything else on this dive would be icing on the cake (we thought).

We followed the manta a little ways to see if it would turn around, but it disappeared. Then we explored around a bit more, following Edwin up against the current. We stumbled upon a big whitetip which was the first we had seen in Komodo and certainly the closest we’d been to one – cool! Then it was clearly time to head to the Cauldron, at which point things became confusing. Not entirely sure where we had ended up, Edwin surfaced to look around and then headed off at a strong clip, Elaine and I kicking along as best we could. We crossed over some corals and then out over a barren stretch of rock and sand which seemed to go on forever. In between kicks and watching my dwindling air supply I exchanged skeptical looks with Elaine. At a certain point I became convinced we were in the completely wrong place and that we would run out of air and surface somewhere unexpected off of Komodo – I didn’t see how we could have possibly strayed so far against the current earlier on.

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Our guide Edwin – “I think it’s this way, guys!”

I had given up on actually seeing the Cauldron when it finally came into view maybe forty minutes into our dive. Whew! I didn’t have much air left, however – I signaled 60 bar to Edwin (this is ~30% of a full tank and just a hair above the 50 bar time-to-surface reserve). We sailed over the bowl of the Cauldron – no time to stop and look! – and straight into the shotgun. As briefed we hooked onto the lip for a couple minutes for the experience of current blasting in your face before releasing and sailing backwards and away. Fun! That was cool, time to wrap it up.

Or not. A mere 40 or 50 meters downstream Edwin pointed up to the side. Another manta, this one surfing the current with ease alongside us! And another, a little further away! Edwin signaled to grab on again and we did, clumping up and waving in the current. I watched the rays up to my left for a few moments until Edwin managed to get my attention and point backwards – there right behind our little group, almost joining us, was yet another of the huge black and white creatures. This was an awesome and awkward few minutes as we craned our necks around to watch, my tank in Edwin’s face, him looking at my air gauge (okay, one more minute!), ropes of the reef hooks biting into our hands. It was unreal, as if we were hanging on the lip of a waterfall while this magical creature levitated effortlessly below us.

The time quickly came to depart and so we were shoved out of the shotgun, our manta friend lifting up and over us to make room. Dive still not over, however – we had to exit the current to the north and get to our pickup point. Edwin, well aware of my air status, signaled me over and pulled his secondary regulator free. I took it and, both of us breathing from the same tank and locked quite close together, we kicked and kicked with Elaine alongside until we were in still waters off of the China Shop reef. Whew! Back to my reg, safety stop at 5 meters, and then surfaced 52 minutes after our adventure began, giddy and smiling.

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a shallow drift dive let us bring our little camera (only good to 15m). Elaine!
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not even close to capturing what these reefs are like
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drifting along!
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clownfish are easy to photograph because they actually stay put in their anemone
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Gregor exploring a reef

What else did we see over so many dives? I’ll wrap up the recap with a hyper-abbreviated list of some of the fish and creature highlights. Of course it’s more than just checkboxes of this-and-that: it’s a whole combined experience and visual impact of expansive corals, darting schools of big fish, and so many remarkable sights that they become commonplace (definitely lost count of the turtles and sharks we saw). But here’s a few cool things to google: a broadclub cuttlefish hovering right in front of us and flashing ripples of light and color across its body like it’s an LCD screen. A huge giant moray out and swimming down the picture perfect coral slope of Batu Bolong. A hairy bat crab tucking itself into its burrow; a white V octopus scuttling around in the dark at night; a dark green angler frogfish perched on a rock, sitting on its feet-like fins. Tiny little iridescent bobtail squid. A weedlike orangutang crab clutching its coral home. A wispy sea feather star swimming along (normally they just sit there, seeing one swim is really cool). A venemous banded sea krait (that’s a snake!) hunting in the reef right next to us. The list goes on…

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leaving Ikan Biru for a night dive
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farewell Ikan Biru!

Oh yeah – I almost forgot, we also went and saw Komodo dragons! This was quite anticlimactic. One reason for this is it came at the tail end (no pun intended) of our wonderful liveaboard diving experience, with the shuttle speedboat bringing us to the big park island of Rinca on the way back to town. Another reason was that despite taking a (fairly short) wilderness hike through the park, the only dragons we saw were wallowing about near the ranger station and kitchen. They claim to not feed them – I’m skeptical. At any rate we got a good close look at these hefty reptiles and took in a few scenic panoramas of the island.

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Elaine wasn’t thrilled about posing next to these ones
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the blue waters of the Flores Sea around the island of Rinca
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dramatic cape pose
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underwater critter signs with our dive pal Laura

Beyond diving, life in Labuanbajo has been pretty relaxed. We bounced around between a few different rooms while not on the liveaboard, ranging from barely tolerable to quite cushy. Meals also were widely varied, from cheap street rice and delectable grilled market seafood to some of the best pizza we’ve found anywhere in the world (thank you chef Marco for leaving Italy for Indonesia!). Our stay here was drawn out somewhat by the need to renew our visa: once we returned from the dive trip we had already burned up three weeks of our allotted four, and with so much of Indonesia left that we might like to see, we decided to extend. This was a several-day overly complicated procedure of which I will spare you the details but we got through it fairly painlessly and took an extra day trip diving while we waited for it to process.

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at Kantor Imigrasi on tiny scooter
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this guy followed us from the hotel while we got coffee
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fanning the flames at the waterfront fish market
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deliciously fresh grilled squid

Our stay in ‘Bajo now draws to a close, having finally made plans to depart. I could totally just stay here and keep diving indefinitely – the idea of becoming a divemaster and instructor here is quite tempting! – but there is more of the world to see. At least for now.

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our final location, beachside lounging
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‘bye ‘Bajo!

Specifics: we stayed in Komodo Lodge (quite nice, and good value once you adjust for higher Bajo prices); Hotel Mutiara (very cheap for here; we survived 3 nights and were both happy to have saved some money and happy to depart); and Sylvia Resort (quite comfy but too far away from town). We dove with Blue Marlin Komodo (both liveaboard and a day trip) and Scuba Republic (a day trip). The Blue Marlin liveaboard was fantastic and I would absolutely recommend it. For the day trip I preferred Scuba Republic: their boat, though slower, is much more comfortable and it’s cheaper. We enjoyed eating at the public fish market down by the port; rice plates at Warung Mama; pizza at Made in Italy (yes it’s more expensive than normal Indonesian fare, but for what you get, it’s a good value); and having cold Prost beer and nachos at Blue Marlin’s sunset view patio.

Visa extension: took a total of three days and three visits (which were all quick and courteous for us). The office is on the other side of the airport so you need to get a ride or rent a motorbike. We had read and heard that unlike in Bali, Imigrasi here requires sponsors for every extension. We lined one up but then it turned out it wasn’t necessary, perhaps due to the fact that we weren’t doing our divemaster training (this was one of the few questions they asked). Come to your first visit dressed nicely, with photocopies of your passport page, visa page, a printout of your departure flight receipt, and a black pen, and you should be all set.

Winding Through West Nusa Tenggara

West Nusa Tenggara is a province of Indonesia sitting just east of Bali in the island chain of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Our stay on Gili Air had brought us to the very westernmost (closest to Bali) end of this province; from there we would work our way eastward, first through the large island of Lombok.

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we spent a comfy night here in Senggigi, Lombok

We said our farewells to peaceful Gili Air and traveled by boat and bus over to Sengiggi, a coastal town on the big island of Lombok. This is a bit of a resort / pass-through town where we grabbed a nice room for a night while we planned our next adventure. Sengiggi isn’t particularly remarkable in any sense, nor is it relaxing (unless you’re paying for a secluded resort) but it does have a very nice beach which was entertainingly mobbed with locals on account of it being a holiday.

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fishing off the point at Senggigi
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busy beach on a holiday

Our objective while on Lombok was to spend a couple nights trekking up Gunung Rinjani, the 3700m volcanic peak at the center of the island with a picturesque caldera lake and hot springs. It sounded a bit difficult but we’ve done similar hikes before and had a pretty good sense of what we’d be in for. After researching more thoroughly, however, we learned that hordes of uneducated and/or uncaring guides and hikers have turned the trail into a garbage dump over the past ten years. Further, while everybody and their uncle on Lombok claims to be a guide, only a select few organizations are both properly prepared and protective of the park (and these ones were quite expensive). What to do? Hiking and camping for us is much more than just the destination, we like to enjoy a beautiful and natural journey even if (or especially when) it’s challenging. While I’m sure we would have made the most of it had we gone we eventually decided that there are plenty of other opportunities in Indonesia and moved on.

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ayam taliwang means “really tasty grilled chicken”

This left us open for what, if anything, we would do on Lombok while there. We elected to stay a couple nights at a homestay in the center of the island at the foot of Rinjani. We imagined quiet jungle scenery and rustic solitude. The reality of where we ended up was a bit busier than pictured, including a rather proximate mosque (these are not quiet neighbors in the early morning) and lots of interaction with the countless members of the host family as well as other guests. The latter was of course quite fun and interesting as we joined the family at mealtime and for playing cards after dark.

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setting out dinner at the homestay
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befriending a cute local
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cacao tree

We also spent several hours on a guided walk with one of the family through neighboring rice fields and jungle. This was quite scenic and well worthwhile to understand a bit more about what daily life is like in rural Indonesia. Farming occurs anywhere possible, and while rice is the most apparent crop, lots of others are cultivated: corn, chilis, vegetables, and tobacco. We made friends with several local dogs, sampled raw roasted cacao, drank too much coffee, and watched some of the endangered ebony leaf monkeys that inhabit Lombok’s forests. We observed – and confirmed later over a 12-hour bus ride – that Indonesians can survive indefinitely purely on cigarettes and coffee. Intermittent small portions of rice are a bonus and seemingly optional. We sucked down water and came close to starvation while our guide meandered along complacently without any nourishment beyond these two staples.

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Gunung Rinjani pokes up over palm trees and rice fields

 

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intricately irrigated terraces make flat rice paddies on the hillsides
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making bamboo stakes for planting
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I got an amused look: “why on earth would you want a photo of this?”
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a small waterfall in a cut between farmland
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locals love the opportunity to take photos with us travelers
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local kids playing at the waterfall
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collecting firewood and cow feed from the nearby hills
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rice!

We stayed only two nights as that was all that was available, though it’s just as well as we were ready to move on. As before with Rinjani we struggled a bit to decide our next move. Lombok offered several other possible destinations but we weren’t really feeling like sticking around; we wanted to push further eastward to the island of Flores and the mecca of diving at nearby Komodo that had us very excited. How to get there wasn’t entirely clear, however. The target destination of Labuanbajo on Flores lay some 380 kilometers (240 mi) due east, across the long and fairly empty island of Sumbawa. Going from point A to B in Indonesia isn’t quite like travel anywhere else – a few hours distance in the States can easily be several days here. Flights for this leg exist, but at the last minute (and during what is apparently high season at Komodo) they were very expensive or sold out. Boats make this trip as well, a four-night journey in cramped quarters. Finally, overland buses (with ferries to connect the dots between islands) are the cheapest choice. We considered the boat option but ultimately decided we’d rather push through to Flores more quickly by bus. Boats aren’t exactly fast here.

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our Lombok-to-Flores journey begins

Our travel began from the homestay down to the nearest sizable town on the backs of motorbikes (an ojek is a motorbike taxi and is quite common). There we got some tickets, waited, and caught the bus as it traveled towards East Lombok. Within a couple hours we (and the bus) were on a ferry headed to Sumbawa, the next island over. This was a decent size car ferry and over the couple hour trip we were entertained (and only slightly appalled) by the rustic conditions on board: passengers lying down in any available corner, chickens wandering around, simple meals being cooked by families on mats. It was a modest preview of the longer ferry ride we would take the next day.

Then it was back on the road in the bus for ten hours across dusty Sumbawa. When building this cross-island stretch it seems that the Indonesians must have already used up all of the straight road sections in their inventory, leaving only curved pieces to work with. We swayed vigorously left and right, back and forth, up and down the whole way. Happily this sort of road gives the Indonesian bus drivers ample opportunity to practice their favorite activities of honking and performing hair-raising passes.

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Sumbawa whizzes by

Fortunately our bus was neither crowded nor smelly which made the trip far more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. We arrived in Bima, Sumbawa’s eastern city, sometime late in the evening. We found a grungy hotel room and wandered around the nearby city park to find some delicious street food and an interesting reception from the locals which ranged from the standard chorus of “hellos” from children, stares and comments from adults (Westerners being unusual in Bima) and some friendly conversation with the rare individual confident with English. Our journey resumed after six hours of sleep by means of another ojek ride, a rusted out skeleton of a minibus, and more ojek to reach the port of Sape.

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probably at least 60% of the original bus is still there

From Sape to Labuanbajo – our destination – there is a ferry that runs once a day if it’s in working condition (it was). It’s a 6-8 hour trip between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. This ferry was quite similar to the first, but more crowded and hotter. People were packed tightly into stuffy compartments, lying around on mats and cardboard, and nested in any shaded corner on the open upper deck. Chickens hunted around for crumbs and various mystery liquids oozed around on flat surfaces. It had the appearance of a refugee camp, but this is normal life here in Indonesia. We sought fresh air and so stayed up on the top deck trying to dodge the sun. Elaine eventually had the great idea, inspired by locals who had brought tarps and blankets, to make a sunshade using our clothesline and her shawl. We found a corner, built a small fort, and waited out the journey on the steel deck while gorgeous blue waters and green-brown islands slowly passed by.

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passing the time hiding on the deck of the ferry

After 34 hours of travel we pulled into the seaside town of Labuanbajo, Flores late in the afternoon with all our body parts and belongings. Success! The whole trip (including our room in Bima) cost less than $50 apiece. Being really excited about doing some amazing diving in Komodo National Park we shook off our travel fatigue, dropped our luggage, and headed off through the town to explore our options for getting in the water. We were certainly not disappointed – but that’s for the next post!

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Labuanbajo sunset

Gili Air: Sunsets, Sharks, and Urchins, Oh My!

We have taken up a new hobby and completely immersed ourselves (pun intended) this past week in the Gili Islands: scuba diving! I have done 10 dives and Gregor 11, the reason for this discrepancy will be revealed shortly. We have been down as far as 30 meters, seen an octopus changing colors, followed a school of big snapper around a shipwreck, dodged spawning titan triggerfish, played pass with an egg yolk underwater and generally have had the time of our lives! Our only regret is not having amazing photos of the rich marine life and undersea landscapes to share with you – we have a waterproof camera but we were often deeper than its 15m rating and we were already quite busy learning new things pretty much every moment. So enable your imagination and/or just look at the numerous sunset photos we have instead.

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an outrigger at low tide and sunset

We had targeted Gili Air (an island off of Lombok in Indonesia) a little while ago as a good place to take the plunge into dive certification (I’m sorry, it’s just too easy). To get there we had a long but fairly easy travel day flying from Hong Kong through Singapore to Denpasar on Bali and spent an unremarkable somewhat dingy night in the Kuta neighborhood. This wasn’t the most enamoring introduction to Indonesia but happily this was rectified the following day when we caught a boat from Bali out to the Gilis. There are three islands here, each with their own shtick. Gili Air, which means “water island” so named because it has a source of fresh water, is best known as the island to go to if you want to dive, whereas Gili Meno is the honeymoon island and Gili Trawangan is the party island. Our boat happily dropped a bunch of meatheads and Jersey Shore beachaholics off at Gili T, and then brought the more low key remainder to Gili Air.

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Gili Air waterfront
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sunset with Gili Meno on the horizon

We have nothing but good things to say about Gili Air. It’s a small flat island with no cars and everything within easy reach (walking around its beach perimeter takes less than two hours). Gorgeous aquamarine waters gently lap on coral beaches and multicolor outriggers while inland, chickens, cows, cats, and monitor lizards stroll around under palm trees. No ugly concrete towers here, just modest homes, some fancy bungalows, and charming guesthouses. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, as are the locals. It’s clean and calm. The weather was just perfect – 30C and mostly sunny each day – which we especially treasured after melting in Vietnam and getting drenched in Hong Kong. Great food options are everywhere, from cheap Indonesian fare (mixed rice plates, satay, curries) to fresh grilled fish and excellent Western choices like sandwiches and salads. I don’t think I could dream up a better place to hang out in between demanding training sessions and exhilarating dives!

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a plate of nasi campur from Moeslim Warung: 20,000 IDR or $1.50. super tasty
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horses are used on Gili Air to haul stuff (and lazy folks) around
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view from the pool we had access to
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this sunset photo has a cat
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grilled fish in banana leaf

Soon after arriving we showed up at our dive center of choice and before we knew it we were in front of a TV watching PADI training videos (outside on a cushion near the beach!) and in the pool with full gear the next morning. Our scuba journey was guided by CJ, a kind-hearted, patient instructor from the US who has been living here for the past 9 months. She led us through skills in the pool that seemed really intimidating at first but turned out to be easy with a little practice, like removing your mask or regulator underwater. Our first dive came just as quickly, backrolling off the boat at the aptly named Turtle Heaven.

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here is where we had to sit and study.
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7 Seas’ beautiful outrigger dive boat!

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Dive one was fun but we both felt rather wobbly and uncertain in our new environment. For non-divers, a big aspect of being in control while diving is maintaining the appropriate level of buoyancy for whatever depth you’re at. This involves a combination of inflating/deflating a vest you wear as well as breathing control (your lungs make a big difference) and it’s not entirely intuitive, so we were bouncing around a fair bit. Our second dive went way better – still far from perfect, but we were in control enough to enjoy ourselves and really be amazed at how awesome diving is! CJ did a great job focusing on the most important skills and mindsets. She’s also a yoga instructor and I think that helps – there are a lot of parallels in terms of body and breath control, and remaining focused and relaxed. Unless you’re clueless or reckless it’s no fun feeling out of control in potentially hazardous conditions, and she got us feeling informed and comfortable with ease.

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on the sundeck of the Mutiara Hitam after our first dive!

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typical view from the boat after a dive near Gili Meno

When we decided to do the Advanced certification – because we were having such a great time learning! – we had to choose 5 dives to improve our skills. We chose buoyancy, wreck diving, deep diving, navigation and night diving. My only previous experience diving was in the Whitsundays in Australia and my friend who was a certified diver did a night dive, which I (Elaine) was not able to do, and raved about it. So I was very excited to do one here. Plus we had been hearing rumors around the dive shop that there was a coconut octopus where we would be diving that only came out at night. Coconut octopus carry a coconut shell around with them and when they feel threatened they hide inside it. This one, though, had been spotted carrying a discarded cup under its arm by the handle and hiding inside that! Also, there was a little hole in the cup where it would peek through, how amazing! Of course we were dying to see this live and so geared up for our night dive at sunset with a couple other folks joining us.

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Elaine and CJ getting ready for a dive

The “house reef” just outside the dive center is amazing, we dove there earlier in the week and that was where we were going to do our night dive. However, the tides here in Indonesia are extreme, as are the currents, so low tide means really low tide. The tide on our night dive was low, so it required a bit of scrambling over dead coral to get up to waist deep so we could begin the dive. As we entered the water it was very clear how unpleasant this task was. CJ never wears booties, but had twisted her ankle earlier in the week so was wearing them for this dive. The rest of us – Gregor and I and two others from Chile – were barefoot and struggling on the sharp coral with heavy tanks. CJ managed to navigate the plateaus and valleys with relative ease, but behind her we were all kind of flopping around in calf deep water wondering when we would be able to swim.

At this point you may be thinking, this is not worth it. Why the hell would anyone put up with all this so they could go shine a light on some fish in the scary abyss? I hear you, but did I mention the coconut octopus? So we trudged on and about a minute into this unpleasant entry I (being first in the line of the 4 of us) would just put my hand down and kind of crab-walk until I could swim. That was pretty slick until about 9 seconds later when my left hand came down on a sea urchin. Uhhh…. I pulled my hand out of the water and shined my flashlight on it and sticking out of my pinky and ring finger were about 12 black spines. At this point (clueless) I thought maybe it was no big deal, I could just pull them out and we could be on our way, but sort of shocked I sat down and – wait for it – sat on another sea urchin. By now I had alerted the group that I had been spiked in the hand and decided that it was time to head for shore. As I walked past them I indicated that I thought I had also sat on one and could sort of feel the flashlight beams on my butt as Gregor involuntarily gasped, “Oh God”. I decided I needed to quickly exit the water and figure out what to do next. Gregor was not far behind me, thankfully and the rest of our group was cautiously wading back to shore. In his calm, confident, triage voice that I hope to never hear directed towards me again, Gregor expertly checked with CJ to confirm he could remove this heavy tank from my back and did so and I stumbled back to the dive shop, thankfully very close to where we were, all while my my fingers were getting numb and dark and I had quills in my butt, which I had not seen directly and did not care to.

By the time I climbed the stairs the group had pretty much caught up and the dive center was having a staff meeting which thankfully included a nurse they have on staff that CJ called over. “She should sit down she might pass out,” I am pretty sure I heard her say and I thought, ‘that’s a good idea, though I should lie on my stomach because, again, I have quills sticking out of my butt’. Somewhat of a spectacle now, the nurse was inspecting the damage along with Matt, one of the other instructors. They are both French and for some reason when French people speak English it sounds immediately believable and calming to me, which seemed great because Matt said he knew exactly what to do about the situation! “Merveilleux!” I thought, these people are great. Then came his solution, delivered in a very nice French accent, “First you remove the big ones, then you take beer bottle and with your finger and – smash smash smash! Very quick for to break up ze spines. They are very brittle so you must smash into little pieces so they dissolve. Very painful, but in 2 or 3 days, no more!” I laughed, but the nurse said, “No, this is true, we will do this?” Oh my God these people are serious! I am in Indonesia with poisonous spines sticking out of my hand and butt and people want to hit me with a beer bottle!

— Ok so quick backstory- Gregor and I went to the “Dokter” yes, that is how they spelled Doctor on the sign, to get some advil the other day and were greeted by a 20-something just beaming and who could not wait to tell us how exciting his day had been as he had just given a German tourist 3 stitches from a bike accident! So, in my current, spiny predicament under normal circumstances I probably would have sought professional medical help, but armed with that knowledge I figured I would take my chances with the French nurse and the beer bottle. —

So along came 2 beer bottles, one empty one for the nurse and one full one for me (thank you) and after brief nudity, creative poses for getting a skin tight wetsuit off while trying not to dislodge any overlooked quills and some oohs and aaahs from the crowd at either success or failure of spine removal ensued, it was time for the smashing. “I am sorry,” the nurse said before she began. Ok, so actually the beer bashing was not that bad. I think if Matt had done it it would have been. He said he had about 100 spines in his foot in another country and when he went to the ER they used a hammer, but as he pointed out this was much cheaper. When she was done, voila! I could sit down! Quite amazing, actually. My hand still hurt, but not really that bad. I took some advil, went to bed and was back at the dive shop at 8:30AM ready to do our wreck dive.

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(butt spines not pictured)
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classy horses-on-the-beach-at-sunset… I bet this is a better photo than they got

Everything else went off without a hitch, and one week later we each have two certifications, 8 hours of dive time (just the start of many more, I think), and a new appreciation for life under da sea (cue Sebastian the crab). As a poor substitute for actual photos, here’s a list of noteworthy critters we saw which you can google if you like. Also imagine fields and pinnacles of corals, innumerable tiny neon colored reef fish, lots of squishy non-coral things that also claim to be animals… and a great bunch of people, both instructors and other customers, to enjoy it all with!

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CJ our instructor
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view of the beachfront bars from out in the shallow low tide
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another sunset! this one with locals digging around in the low tide shallows

No obligation at all to read this list! Only there if you want to nerd out on sea creatures, and/or get envious and come to Indonesia too.

  • Countless angelfish, surgeonfish, 20170629_203054.jpgbutterflyfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, and moorish idols
  • Green and hawksbill turtles cruising around, eating, and snoozing on the bottom
  • Scorpionfish and lionfish
  • A mantis shrimp scuttling around like mantis shrimp do
  • Lots of types of clownfish hanging out in their anemones
  • A rough tail shrimp, a coral banded cleaner shrimp, and an anemone shrimp. These guys are tiny and half transparent so thanks other people who spotted them, no chance we would have
  • Puffers: blackspotted, immaculate, and some really huge map pufferfish
  • Cute little spaghetti garden eels
  • Several day octopus hiding out in dark corners, including one that changed both color and texture while we revisited it during some underwater navigation practice
  • A pair of yellowtail barracuda
  • A blacktip shark, nicely spotted by Elaine
  • A whitetip shark (only briefly)
  • Moray eels big and small chilling out in their holes: yellowmargin, blackspotted, reticulated, and giant
  • Sea feather stars of all sizes and colors
  • Comb jellyfish (with the little multicolored lights!)
  • Nudibranch: swollen phyllidia and banana (big!) to name a couple
  • Coral groupers, bluefin trevally, golden trevally, amberjack, and a big fat double-lined mackerel
  • A couple types of trumpetfish and cornetfish
  • A big school of scissortail fusilier encircling us
  • A batfish (spadefish) lolling on its side while being cleaned by bluestreak wrasse
  • Lots of other stuff we don’t know how to recognize yet…

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Specifics: Gili Air is a Muslim majority place and we were there through the end of Ramadan, which meant that the locals were celebrating and most everything was closed, but it was okay. It was nice to see the local places opening up when everyone went back to work. The mosque that was a couple hundred meters from our room was bumpin’.

We stayed at Villa Karang Homestay for $16/night which included breakfast. The room was great except the bed was a bit musty because it’s pretty humid all around Bali, apparently this is a common problem. Shower was part saltwater which is typical. “Homestay” is a bit of a stretch – they are a set of budget rooms affiliated with the beachfront resort by the same name, so no character but you do get to join in on the pool and buffet breakfast. The breakfast I thought was great, but Gregor was disenchanted by the repetitive whiny island music they played and the temperature of the pancakes. Sad!

We dove with 7 Seas and can’t say enough good things about them. Perfect combo of chill and professional, and while we really liked CJ our instructor we would have been more than happy to train with any one of their staff – all super nice and helpful people. Thank you 7 Seas for being so awesome!

The best food we found was: Warung Moeslim for cheap and delicious nasi campur (soft c like a “ch”, mixed rice with tasty stuff); Easy Gilli Warung and Lemongrass Cafe for other local stuff like curries; Le Sate Bar for… sat(e/ay); and Shark Bites for a range of really good western dishes from cheap lunch pasta on up, plus good coffee and super nice owners. Shark Bites and Moeslim became our go-to’s while there (thanks CJ for the pointers!). If you’re walking around after sunset try some spicy grilled corn on the cob from one of the cart vendors.

Make sure you get to the western beach for sunset(s). There are plenty of waterfront bars to relax at that aren’t very expensive. Mowie’s has surprisingly awesome jackfruit tacos (sounds weird, right?).