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A Vagabond World


Shortly after arriving in Bajawa I found myself part of a trio. Daniel, a Swiss electrician, had been traveling for over two years. Much of that time was spent in New Zealand, Australia and parts of New Guinea. Marco, employed by an airline in Milan, spent nearly all his vacations in Indonesia. His deep fascination with the country resulted in marriage to an Indonesian girl. It dissolved shortly after he took her home to Italy. Forty, tall, balding, and barrel-chested, he walked with an unmistakable limp. Birth defects included a shortened leg, an ankle that would not straighten, and a sixth finger on one hand. German, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, English, Bahasa Indonesian - he spoke them all fluently and, some, constantly.

As with all the travelers traveling through western Flores, our objective was to see the Komodo dragon, a monitor lizard that could grow larger than three meters. They first became a tourist attraction in the early part of the century when a Dutch lieutenant scientifically verified their existence. Most tourists observed them at the national park on the island of Komodo, not far from the coast of Flores, where the unique animals lingered near a viewing area. More intriguing to us was the possibility of viewing the monstrous reptiles in their lesser-known habitat on Flores' northern coast.

Our difficulty was crossing the island. The map showed a single dotted line from a junction on the Ende road; the owner of our hotel told us buses went there Tuesdays and Thursdays. Others said Mondays and Wednesdays. We heard one gentleman say the service operated out of Ende, a full day's journey from whence we came. Another said there was a connection halfway to Ende. Some said there was no service at all.

We found a driver going as far as the Ende junction. From there, he said, a connection would take us a quarter of the way further. He pointed to a blank region on the map. A least it was a start. Quite a distance beyond the smudge left by his finger was a small village. For the sake of its residents, I took it on faith that some sort of public transport connected it to the main road.

Shortly after sunrise we were bouncing our way towards Ende on benches in the tray of a three-ton truck. I was seated directly above the axle, my knees touching the bench in front. Unlike a bus, the truck's stiff suspension gave the driver the ability to push the vehicle to higher speeds. Every nuance of the rutted road was magnified and sent through my vertebrae.

In the bench seat in front of us sat a striking young woman of sharp features, her hair pulled back in a bun. She jabbered to the other passengers who chuckled and laughed. For a long while Marco listened intently.

Finally, he turned to me and quietly said, "They're talking about us. She thinks it's funny how the foreigners come to look at nothing."

Soon, with the bumping and jarring, the passengers fell quiet. The locals passed the hours smoking. I passed them coughing. By lunch we had made our first connection and by late afternoon we reached a dry, deserted village. This would be the end of the line as denoted by the smudge on my map. A leaning fence of withered tree limbs surrounded the vacant market immediately adjacent to the dirt lot known as the truck stop. A smaller truck, brown with dirt, its bed covered with a canvas canopy and lined with two bare wooden benches, sat alone and empty. Except for a slight breeze and a stray dog, the village was devoid of all movement. It appeared we would not be going anywhere for some time.

I had not stood for hours; my joints were tight and my muscles cramped or numb. After several long minutes I rolled over the side of the truck and slipped my legs beneath me. A man appeared from a warung and asked our destination.

"As far as the road will take us," I called in my limited Bahasa.

A broad smile crossed his face. He would be leaving momentarily. Transport across the smudge existed after all.

At first we passed impeccable bamboo huts, the mountains behind lit by the late afternoon's light. The track deteriorated and the driver found a meandering path through the dense cover and crossed a river where livestock bathed and watered. Beyond lay mud flats, another range, and then the coast again, the mountains gently tapering to the sea. There we beheld volcanic monoliths and mounds, sculptured by time and earth. Wherever the grass could not take hold the craggy bedrock was revealed. It was as if the skin of the earth had been torn away to reveal the inner skeleton. Further, the ground was cracked and parched. Villages were arranged haphazardly and the huts no longer neat and orderly. Their thatch roofs were gray with age; bare patches revealed the framing underneath where sunlight cast through. Small and weathered branches posed as fencing.

By dusk we had entered the forest. The headlights revealed the gray silhouettes of tree trunks and the tracks left by those before us; all else faded into black. Passengers had come and gone throughout the afternoon. Now it was only Daniel and I bouncing along on the hard benches too tired to speak. Marco's endless banter could be heard from the cab.

Well past dark, the driver dropped us at a wood-frame house. Guesthouses did not exist as such, only homestays hosted by those wise to the income the occasional traveler would bring. A short, solid man wearing a black and yellow checkered sarong welcomed us while his wife prepared a meal and his daughter readied our beds. It took very little time for our host to query us regarding our plans to view the giant lizards. We were interested but not sure how to go about it. He joined us at the table.

Leaning forward on his elbows so we all could hear, he said, "I can arrange boat."

"How much?" I asked.

"20,000 rupiah."

He had gotten our attention.

"Why the boat?" I asked.

"The lizards live on island."

None of us had read of lizards inhabiting the smaller islands, but we were not surprised. Their powerful tails enabled the resourceful reptiles to swim. Reportedly, they could cover the length of a football field before coming up for air.

He continued. "You tell me now so I can get dog."

I imagined us being pulled through the forest by a baying bloodhound. "Can't we find the lizards without the dog?" I asked.

"No. Without the dog the lizards will not come."

Now I imagined a collie rustling a group of lizards from the bushes.

"Do the lizards eat the dog?" Daniel asked, much quicker than I on the uptake.

"Yes. Yes. But you must tell me so I must get dog from friend and kill."

I assumed he meant the dog.

"What's the big hurry? Can't this wait 'til morning?" I said, none too anxious to set off a dog slaughtering frenzy.

"Dog must sit for three days. Lizards only come if meat..." He waved his fingers in circles in front of his nose.

"Smell," I said, nodding. "How much for the dog?"

"20,000 Rupiah."

I nodded again.

Marco continued the cross-examination. "Where's the island, my friend?"

"National park."

"How much to get into park?"

"No charge."

"We take your boat?"

"My friend have boat."

"He can find the lizards?"

"Ranger must go."

"What's the charge?"

"20,000 Rupiah."

At least it was a nice round, good looking number.

"Why don't you wait on the dog." I said. "I think we'll speak to the ranger."

In the morning we found the ranger in a small hut perched high on stilts on the far side of town near the mangrove swamp. After introductions we moved inside and sat in a circle on the bare floor. Illuminated by a shaft of light from the door, Marco and the ranger spoke of the village, the fishing, and his work. The ranger's wife and child looked on. The conversation quickly and clumsily shifted to business as Marco inquired about boats and dead animals.

"He says we must hire his boat and three boatmen. It will cost 40,000 Rupiah. He will bring the dog. He can only take us tomorrow. He has an official visiting the following day."

"I thought the meat had to be rancid?" Daniel asked Marco.

Marco dropped back into conversation with the ranger.

"He says the dog isn't that important. We can see the lizards on the beach."

Just as well, I thought. It seemed juvenile, if not hypocritical, to kill one animal in order to look at another.

"What does he charge for the boat?" Daniel asked.

After more questions to the ranger, Marco said, "It seems the lizards on the island are small. If we want he'll take us to a beach on the mainland where we can see other lizards."

Now I was confused. "So we don't need a boat, either?"

Marco and the ranger picked up once again their quick-paced conversation.

"Apparently not. The lizards on the coast are just as colorful as the ones on the island."

This struck us all as strange. The pictures I had seen showed sleek, flat-headed beasts with dull hides. In fact, they were muddy gray.

Again, Marco questioned the ranger. After a long moment he said, "The lizards are more colorful when they're young. To escape the adults who eat them they hide along the coast and on the islands."

Marco and the ranger chatted on. I could not keep pace with their fluency but their body language told me the conversation was shifting between fishing, children, schools, and other aspects of village life before coming back, again and again, to Komodo Dragons. We had been with the ranger for well over an hour by then, and my understanding of the dragon viewing business was no clearer. In fact, I was more confused. As they meandered on in conversation, I noted how accommodating the ranger was, as was the man in whose home we were staying. We had come on the spur of the moment to see lizards and lizards they were more than willing to show us. Whatever it took - boats, dogs, last minute scheduling - they would arrange it.

Or would they? The ranger's wife brought us tea. I turned our conversation over in my mind, and then came at it from a different angle. We had come to see Cadillacs and they were showing us mopeds. If we questioned a service, its omission was easily accommodated. It was as if 'no' was a dirty word.

"Marco," I interrupted, "ask him what he'd do if he wanted to see big lizards, the really big lizards."

The ranger spoke at length.

"He'd go walking in the mountains. Three or four days," Marco said.

With those words the missing piece fell into place and my understanding of the situation clicked into sharp focus. The Komodo dragon had often been described as the most intelligent reptile in the world. They were a cunning and opportunistic lot, who would rather scavenge a carcass than get overheated stalking prey. Just about anything would do - water buffalo, cats, rats, snakes, fish, clams, birds, dogs, chickens, goats, monkeys, and porcupines were all known to have vanished down their gullet. A typical dragon's range could include dry monsoon forest, savannas, swamps, open beach, and, even, offshore islets and reefs.

Even so, it was in the mountains, at moderate elevations, where these reptiles could most easily regulate their body temperature. The cooler hours of the day were spent roaming, "tasting" the air with their tongues, as they honed in on their diet of choice: mule deer, boar and fellow monitors. An animal could be stalked by its feces or ambushed along a pathway, the lizard waiting silently in the brush or tall grass, its colorless hide blending into the shadows. With a blinding burst of speed from its short, stocky legs, game would be quickly tackled. The highly efficient carnivore would waste no time devouring the prey, dead or alive, aided by a powerful upper body, a uniquely jointed jaw - which made chewing an afterthought - and a set of shark-like teeth ideally suited for tearing away large chunks of flesh. In one case, a one hundred and ten pound lizard was known to have eaten a ninety-pound boar in all of seventeen minutes. For those victims who were merely injured, the lizard's highly-infectious saliva would prove just as fatal.

Through Marco I asked the ranger if roughing it in Dragon territory might not be dangerous. He assured us he would carry a rifle and a walking stick. Glimpsing these shy and patient animals in the wild no longer seemed attractive. I was doubtful the lizards would be checking insignia as they charged from the bushes.

Somewhat shyly Daniel broke the silence and said, "I don't care to spend four days on the off chance we'll see the dragons." That seemed as good a reason as any to avoid becoming a Komodo dinner special. I readily agreed. Marco nodded. We would forgo lizard viewing and travel west to Komodo.

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