The Final Chapter


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August 13th 2015
Published: August 13th 2015
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View of islet bays on Komodo tour
Franck, Melanie and I had mentioned meeting up in senggigi before I departed for the Komodo tour. However this did not work out so I ended up having a few beers in a bar/restaurant on my own that night and listening to live music. I chatted to some locals working at the place and ended up receiving contact details from one of the ladies, which was amusing to me.

The following day a crowded minibus picked me up for the Komodo tour. We were dropped off at a tourist centre which was packed with travellers. There I met a few guys who would jump on the same boat as me. We had to wait for a couple of hours before the boat was ready for us to load onto it. While we were waiting we were presented with a menu and lined paper and we had to write down what we wanted and in what quantities during the 4-day-3-night trip. This created some pressure but I made sure to order 12 large bintang beers.

The boat looked strange. The roof was triangular, giving the vehicle a house-like look. And it did not appear to be particularly sturdy. We could
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Komodo dragon rawr
also tell immediately that the tour was going to be a cramped experience.

In total 24 tourists piled onto the boat. There was a living space - with two long benches facing each other on either side - where we would eat, drink and dance; a modest open area at the front of the boat where luckier passengers would be able to lie down and sunbathe during the day; and an upstairs sleeping section. We would sleep on thin mats during the evening; these mats were arranged in two long columns spanning the length of the boat and the columns faced each other in a toe-to-toe fashion. The ceiling was so low that you would have to crawl or crouch-walk to reach your mat. Lining each wall were hazy windows.

On the first day of the tour we started our journey towards Flores island, passing by Sumbawa. We made one stop for swimming and experienced a strong current. That evening I sat at the front of the boat, enjoyed watching the stars and the mysterious, red moon as it rose up from the dark horizon and socialised with fellow passengers. Sophie said that whilst she was in South
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Fellow boatmates - dinner and drinks in labuanbajo
America she saw an animal that looked like a rabbit and a squirrel all at once, leaving us mystified; she showed us a picture and it did indeed look that way. Liz named it a squabbit and we peed ourselves. Because it was a squabbit.

All of us had a horrendous night's sleep. The boat was rocking alarmingly - indeed, it was tilting so severely in the rough waves that the guy opposite me slid across the floor and collided with my mat. I'll be honest: as I watched the horizon line outside my window reach near verticality I was close to tears - and it didn't help that someone had told me that the year previous one of the boats on this tour had capsized, resulting in two deaths. Indeed, just today Irene (a fellow passenger) informed me that very recently tourists on one voyage - doing the same tour - had to help throw buckets of water off the boat as it had flooded so much. Thankfully in my case all was ok and the seas eventually calmed.

We woke up early and made a stop by an island beach. We swam to the shore and
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Me and Irene
then followed a path through the jungle to a cute tiered waterfall. We climbed up this and found a small, deep pool. Along with others, I jumped off a relatively high tree branch and plunged into the water. On our way back down the waterfall we sat in a shallow pool and had a 2 minute pool party.

Later that day, at a different island, we snorkelled in the sea as we swam to the beach. From the beach we walked inland to find a large, beautiful salt water lake surrounded by jungle. The water was warm and it was easy to float. I wondered how many snakes were in there.

That evening, as we sat in a circle, liz played some tunes from her speaker and we sang along horrendously. I enjoyed more of my bintangs. Later in the night a few of us sat at the front of the boat. We gazed at the night sky and enjoyed the cool sea breeze before going to bed.

After waking we observed that we had stopped at an island. We walked up a relatively steep hill and we rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding islets
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Bonding moment in labuanbajo
and bays and the lighter and darker shades of sea blue. On our way back down the slippery dirt paths we saw several black holes in the ground. A guide stopped us and warned us to mind these holes as he didn't "want to wake them". When we asked what he meant by "them" he informed us that Cobras resided in these holes, whereupon we made a made dash for the boat.

Later in the afternoon we made a couple of snorkelling stops at manta point and were able to see several huge manta rays swimming in the water just above the seabed. They moved their bodies in a graceful, slow winglike motion.

After that we stopped by a different islet at 'pink beach'. This was an idyllic little beach. Whilst it was not exactly pink panther pink, you could see that the sand was dotted with red seabits which I assume were eroded coral. After swapping my mask for a better one I snorkelled in the water and it was some of the best snorkelling I have done for coral. The coral was very much alive and covered the full colour spectrum with vividity. All shapes and
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Rikardus, me, Shans and alvian
forms were observable and it felt like I had left earth and entered an undiscovered, alien oceanic world.

After pink beach liz blared her music speaker from the boat and - bintang in-hand - the others and I danced like animals to the likes of cascada and 'I'm on a boat'. We were getting prepared for the boat party that night. I bought extra beers from a guy on a boat. Liz and I jumped off the boat with our beers into rubber rings which had been attached to each other by rope; the current was strong - at one point the rope untied and I had to doggy paddle with my beer and ring back to the boat. At another point we decided to give the neighbouring boat a visit because their music was louder so we paddled over against the current but the rope didn't stretch that far.

After dinner we danced and drank on the in the living space. Our neighbouring boat shifted over and collided with ours, allowing us to jump on. We danced and drank there for a while, but then APPARENTLY the speaker 'blew up' so there was no more music apart
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Ruteng
from Liz's speaker which (to be truthful) wasn't really up to the task of a boat disco. I sat with some Spanish guys and said some rudimentary Spanish words much to their amusement. After returning to my boat a few of us sat in a circle and made some drunken confessions.

The following day we visited one island to see the Komodo dragons. Our guide warned us that we might by see any but we saw a few. A small one in the woods and then a few large ones by the tourist offices on the way out of the park. They are large, menacing creatures and bacteria-infused saliva dangles from their chops. They were cool.

Then we visited Komodo national park. We saw dragons, cute deer and monkeys. We took a short hike through the park and up a hill and enjoyed a fantastic view of the surrounding islands. We took a group photo up there.

From there we travelled to labuanbajo, Flores. We visited sky lounge in the evening and absorbed a beautiful sunset view of the harbour. We had a few drinks and listened and danced to live music.

The following day was
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Ruteng - in class
chilled. I booked my flight to Jakarta from Lombok and my airport hotel, and a bus to bajawa in the east. My time was running out because of my visa but I wanted to make the most of my time in Flores while I was here. Bajawa was about ten hours away. That evening we returned to sky lounge for drinks and live music. Liz and I got drunk on local cocktails and liz sang with the live band.

Early the next morning my bus arrived to collect me. I was considering alighting early at a town called ruteng as this would be a shorter journey (4 hours), giving me more time to enjoy another part of the island. However there was only a parenthetical section in it in lonely planet and I was not sure what was there apart from spectacular spiderweb rice fields (which were located out of town and which I wasn't even sure I would be able to reach without a motorbike).

Anyway, I got off at ruteng, dropped my bag in a hotel and then started walking about the town. How do I describe ruteng? It is in the country, surrounded by mountains
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Welcomed by alvian's mum
in the distance and rice fields. I did not see a single tourist in town. Restaurants are small local dives with food options written in the local language. Pigs are strapped onto van roofs and are bound by rope at the feet and mouth on the street. Everywhere I go people are staring at me, saying, 'Hello mister,' laughing at the sight of me and even asking me for my signature. Catholicism is manifestly the primary religion: churches and crucifixes are readily visible in town. This is a world away from the indonesia I have experienced thus far.

After dining in an up-and-coming restaurant in a developing tourist complex out of the centre of town, I decided to try and find the spiderweb rice fields. As I walked down a street with the intention of finding some form of transport, three kids approached me by motorbike and started talking to me. Asking me my name, where I was from.

They were all 16 years old, studying tourism together at school.

They said that there was a rare festival taking place and that they wanted to take me there. Deciding that opportunities like this did not come around
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Komodo pool party!
often, I jumped as passenger on the back one of their motorbikes.

After driving up and down steep and stony dirt roads and through village areas, we arrived at a circular clearing around which large, bustling crowds of locals sat and stood attentively, observing what was going on. This was clearly an important event. I could hear bells and drums. I didn't know what was going on. Everyone was staring at me - 'Hello mister' - and the three kids I was with were smiling at me, doe-eyed, with an expression which approximated to something like disbelief, joy and reverence - all at once - on their faces.

I looked into the circle. Shirtless men, wearing brightly coloured head garments (which resembled buffalo horns) and cloths wrapped around their waists, danced with bells hanging from their lower backs and whips in their hand. Some were holding shields. They couldn't possibly be using these things? I decided these items were of symbolic importance, and enjoyed watching the dance.

'This is very dangerous,' said one of the kids. One of the participants in the festival approached our group with what I interpreted as a stony facial expression. He spoke
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Swish hotel in Guangzhou - thanks China Southern!
in hushed tones to the kids. I felt uncomfortable. Maybe he was telling the kids that I was not welcome here. This was an important festival for locals, not tourists.

But no. He wanted a picture with me. As he walked away, I saw a long, thick, pink gash on his back.

'To us, tourists are like kings,' said rikardus.

I directed my gaze to the centre of the circle. I saw one of the participants approaching another at speed, confrontationally. Suddenly, his whip was raised and he launched it with a crack at his shield-wielding opponent.

We moved around the circle for a different view. The interspersed, violent confrontation was always accompanied by music - and dancing. Rikardus explained that this was a manggarai festival. Manggarai is a cultural community within Flores island. He said that the festival's purpose was to give thanks to the gods. His teacher would inform me the following day that the festival was also about celebrating good social relations in the community: the suffering induced by another's whip is always followed by smiles - and dancing. The dancing is called Caci.

'They said you can move.' Suddenly, I was
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Guangzhou
being led by the kids and a local I did not recognise through the circle. 'PLEASE tell me they don't want me to participate,' I thought fleetingly. I was led to a line of chairs at the very front of the circle, and an elderly man next to me shook my hand. I had been given a chair - a front row ticket. A couple of tourists I hadn't noticed before were also sitting here. They were treating us like royalty.

Coincidentally, two of the passengers on my boat arrived and were also directed to the same area. They sat next to me.

After a while, the locals gave us coffee.

'We welcome you here. We don't want your money like they do in labuanbajo,' one of the English-speaking locals said to me.

Microphone-amplified singing and speaking occurs during the festival. Apparently in the local dialect one of the festival participants said that the white-skinned female tourists were giving him energy to perform.

Shans, rikardus and alvian led me back to the motorbikes after some time. They invited me to stay for the night at their school boarding accommodation. I gratefully accepted. They drove to
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Guangzhou
my hotel, I collected my bag and then they drove to their accommodation, making a stop on the way to allow me to see the big, modern church that they attend.

As we neared their accommodation, rikardus said to me, 'I'm sorry, we live a very simple life,' apparently by way of apology. Had language barriers not been present, I would have stressed to him that it was a honour to be welcomed into his home, that he and his friends were bestowing me with an unforgettable cultural experience, and that there was no need to apologise. Instead I told him there was no problem and that I was happy to be here.

We arrived in the bedroom. The wall was adorned with beautiful nature-themed paintings, and these were accompanied by football-related newspaper clippings. Two adjacent mattresses lay on the floor. I put my bags down.

'Please sit.' Rikardus, Shans, alvian and I spoke for a long time, and as the day wore on more and more students of the nearby school crowded into the room to see me. We chatted about lots of things including school, ways of life in Indonesia and London respectively, daily routine,
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Spiderweb rice fields
studying, ambitions, food and manga Ray culture. The kids taught me phrases in manggarai.

Rikardus told me that indonesia is comprised of many different cultural communities. The manggarai community is one such example. Rikardus indicated that he enjoys the diversity and embraces friends regardless of their cultural background. He said that there is a motto in Indonesia which translates to: 'We are different, but one.'

The three told me that they and all the locals liked the colour of my skin and my nose. I asked them why. They pondered on this. Rikardus said that it was because I looked different.

Rikardus informed me that, that day, he and his friends had been looking for a tourist in town with the intention of taking them to the festival. They stumbled across me. He told me that they wanted to practise their English. Moreover taking a tourist around town would give them helpful experience in view of their common ambition to become a tour guide in the future. The three said that they were very happy that they found me and that I was a kind tourist.

The teachers on the tourism programme instruct the children to collect signatures from tourists as homework. 'Funny homework, huh?' Rikardus said. The idea is that this task will get the kids talking to tourists. Apparently some (not all) tourists ignore them.

I asked them about the disciplinary system at school. Rikardus told me that misbehaviour can incur whipping as punishment. 'But we need that - for motivation,' he added.

Rikardus took out some of his school paperwork and showed me his grade reports. With 80s and 90s across the board, he is clearly a very intelligent child. I was able to deduce this anyway from his command of English and general demeanour. Rikardus talked me through a tourist leaflet he had received from school which contained information on local sights and attractions.

The tourism programme comprises 21 subjects. All three of the children enjoy what they do. Rikardus emphasised the importance of motivation in relation to success. The three agreed that the programme was challenging.

They wake up in the morning, go to school, come back home for a nap, cook for themselves and study in the evening. I asked him where he studied. He pointed to the mattress. 'Just simple,' he said.

Rikardus said to me that university was the dream, but many are unable to attend. 'It's different: in your country the government pays, in our country our parents pay.'

Towards the end of the evening, the other children who had joined left and the three kids presented me with dinner. Delicious tofu (tahu) and noodles and rice. 'Very simple,' said Rikardus.

Rikardus had explained that they rarely eat meat because it is too expensive and they look forward to eating vegetables. Sometimes even vegetables are too expensive so occasionally they will just eat rice.

I uttered a heartfelt thank you. 'Take it easy,' said rikardus, trying to set me at ease. 'Go ahead.' The food was lovely. Wishing to indicate that I had enjoyed the food, I took a little more rice at the end. Not wishing to deprive the children of the leftover tofu, I left it alone - whereupon the kids said, 'Please take - manggarai custom!'

After dinner alvian presented me with a beautiful handcrafted scarf and told me that he wanted me to keep it as a souvenir. He pointed out patterns on the material and said that they symbolised community.

We then went to sleep.

The kids woke me up with a cup of coffee. Then we had rice and noodles for breakfast, which was followed by a cup of hot water - 'Hot water in the morning, very important.' After brushing our teeth and washing our faces, the children escorted me to their school. The school was large and multi-levelled. The students on the grounds were very excited to see me. 'Hello mister!'

The three took me to two classrooms. Each room contained desks arranged in an orderly manner and a whiteboard on the wall. At the front of each classroom I was prompted by the three to address the pupils (the teachers had not arrived yet). The children did not all possess the same command of the English language so I had to keep things simple. I asked them if they enjoyed their subject, where they were from, about Indonesian food etc. and told them some bits about myself. I also tried to employ a couple manggarai phrases the three had taught me the night before - much to everyone's amusement.

In the first classroom I had my picture taken with the pupils. In one of the rooms we prayed together.

Subsequently we made our way downstairs and the trio introduced me to their English teacher, with whom I then had a conversation. We spoke about the school, his career and manggarai traditions and culture amongst other things.

The children then hurried away to ask a teacher for permission to escort a tourist (me) to sights in the local area - relevant practical experience outside of the classroom. Permission was granted.

From the school the four of us travelled by bike to alvian's village. Alvian pointed out traditional manggarai houses. These houses possess a roof with multiple triangular faces leaning towards a central apex so that from a bird's eye view it looks like a spiderweb. Atop the apex is a buffalo-derived structure which alvian informed me represents strength and power.

In the village I was welcomed into alvian's mother's home. The three kids acted as translator and I was able to communicate with his mother. Also present were the next door neighbours. There is a very strong sense of community. I was told that alvian's father constructed the house. Alvian's mother provided us with coffee and roasted peanuts. Alvian played music in the background including reggae and Indonesian tunes. I felt extremely welcome and had a fascinating, unforgettable experience in a warm manggarai home. The three spoke to alvian's mother in manggarai about their experience with me.

After spending some time there we travelled to the spiderweb rice fields. (Whilst leaving the village I looked to my left on alvian's bike and saw children standing to attention before their teacher outside school; everyone - including the teacher - had stopped what they were doing and were staring at me! Workers in the rice fields along the road that led out of the village would also smile and wave at me. Alvian reminded me that the locals liked the colour of my skin.) I got to see them in the end! The children paid for my entrance fee; I immediately tried to reimburse them but they would not accept. 'We are so happy; we are able to do this today because of you,' said rikardus.

We observed the spiderweb rice fields from an elevated position on top of a nearby hill. It was the trio's second time here. The fields were a vast, spectacular sight. A staggering, spider-inspired patchwork quilt comprising every shade of green. The kids' English teacher had explained to me earlier that the centre of the 'spiderweb' represents familial power and the lines fanning out to the outer rings represent power trickling down to the later generations.

On top of the hill I coincidentally bumped into Irene. It was nice to see her. I like her. She's very much into yoga, meditation and energy.

From the spiderweb rice fields the kids and I jumped back on the bikes and we visited alvian's grandparents in the same village. His grandparents were just as warm and hospitable as his mother. I was lavished with more roasted peanuts and deliciously sweet tea. Again the trio acted as translators for me and we watched some Indonesian telly.

After these incredible experiences the three took me to the travel office so I could book my ticket, took me back to their place so I could collect my bag and waited with me for my bus. 'You must promise to come back,' alvian said to me on the ride to the office.

'We will never forget your name,' Rikardus said to me with (unnecessary) gratitude as they waited with me - a sentiment with which the other two concurred. Rikardus told me to tell my friends and family about my experiences, and I said I certainly would and I could not wait. I was extremely grateful and told them that I had had an unforgettable experience.

I got a bit emotional on the bus back to labuanbajo. These kids - abundantly motivated, warm and intelligent as they are - have relatively few resources with which to get by in their lives. And yet they were unreservedly willing to give without expecting anything back. (Alvian even initially declined money.) They have so much joy, so much potential, so much to contribute to the world, and I hope deeply that their ambitions become a reality and that fulfilled and happy futures await them.

The bus journey back was gruelling and I was exhausted. That evening I visited an Italian restaurant and coincidentally liz and Rory were there. We ate together and then I booked my bus-boat ticket to lombok (where I would catch my flight to Jakarta) before going to bed.

I woke up early to catch my 9am boat. I would endure a 24 hour journey to lombok comprising: a ferry to Sumbawa, a cramped minibus to the bus station, a bus to the ferry port, a ferry to Lombok, and then a bus to Mataram. It was quite gruelling but the transport changes broke it up a bit which was good. It could have been worse.

In arrived in Mataram at around 9am. I spent the day in a supermall buying a few small presents.

The following day I caught my flight from lombok international airport to Surabaya airport. I met a lovely Muslim lady on the flight who told me much about her family and changing social values. From Surabaya I got my connecting flight to Jakarta. In Jakarta I got a taxi to the relatively plush hotel I had booked.

This morning I woke up early and caught my flight from Jakarta to Guangzhou, China - where I am now. My final flight to London Heathrow leaves tomorrow at 9.30am.

I was expecting to be slumped in the airport for 18 hours, but much to my surprise China Southern Airline has put me up in a swish hotel in town for 'free'. I was granted a 24 hour visa by Chinese immigration. For the past few hours I've been wandering around town, getting a taste for China. Everything is in Chinese - menus, street signs, shop names. Food is very meaty and locals play pool and cards on the street. There are vendors dotted around selling street food. I strolled through a local market and saw veggies and meaty things.

I'll be waking up tomorrow at around 5.20am to complete the final stretch of what has been a life-changing 7 month adventure.

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So that's it. The final chapter.

Now I have a comprehensive diary of my travels to look back on and enjoy for the rest of my life.

On reflection, the blog starts getting serious a couple of months in. I think that mirrors my growing confidence as I became more seasoned at travelling. The purpose of the blog also changed. At the start I was writing it to let people know what I was getting up to. As time passed, it became a personal diary and memory capsule. I wrote this for me. Details which may seem irrelevant to an objective reader will ignite a chain of memories for me: smells, people, places, feelings.

I'm glad I persevered with this.

So - have I achieved the dreaded cliche? Have I 'found myself'?

Yes, actually. Travelling has made me aware of my potential in this world. The stake that I can enjoy in life if only I will claim it. It has taught me how to open doors that I had previously assumed were closed to me. It has taught me much about my self-worth.

I can do anything.

This trip is coming to an end tomorrow - and I can't quite believe it. But it is the start of something.

Early on in my travels I developed my travel litmus test. Doing things because they scare me. Avoiding regrets on the plane home.

Now I will make it my life litmus test. And I will seek to use it always.

The list of experiences I have had using this approach to life in the past 7 months simply does not stop.

Another thing. Travelling has taught me much about human beings, making me less ignorant.

If my experiences in Asia are anything to go by, I have observed that, wherever you are, a smile is a smile and a look of confusion is a look of confusion. Where there is freedom, everyone wants to party, dance, look good, get laid and gossip.

It's what makes us human.

It's like Rikardus said:

'We are different, but one.'

11/08/2015

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