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Saturday, September 15, 2012

August 31 – Sept 3, 2012 – Labuan Bajo; Part 1 - Inexpensive Fuel, Great Food, Scary Water Taxis, and Pearls (Oh My!)

Upon anchoring at Labuan Bajo, commonly known as LBJ, we were immediately "claimed" by a local Boat Boy. He appeared out of nowhere and made it clear that we belonged to him. The watercraft these guys use are long, narrow wooden vessels that have been obviously hand-made and appear to have been assembled from discarded bits and pieces of lumber, string, fabric and lawnmower motors, sans muffler. Hardly seaworthy, they convey their occupants across large stretches of water, all the while being driven with one hand and pumped with the other – the pumping action is to alleviate water from the bilge, which is a constant feat. Our guy had an unpronounceable name and spoke very little English, yet he was able to communicate to us that he would be our water taxi and as well provide fuel service, beer, water and any other commodity that we wished to purchase through his convenient delivery services for a nominal fee.

We arranged delivery of 400 liters of diesel fuel for the amazingly low price of 7,000 IDR per liter (approx 70 cents, USD per), and petrol for 10,000 per liter. Fuel is cheap here, and surprisingly clean. After arranging these services he then whipped out his Komodo dragon carvings and a large bag of strung pearl necklaces for our perusal. Everyone seemed to be purchasing pearls and carvings so we had a gander. The pearls are imperfect but not too bad, and so I picked out one black and one white strand and a dragon carving about 10 inches long. At first, he wanted to charge me 500,000 IDR per strand and 800,000 for the dragon (totaling about $180 USD). After some heated haggling, impressing upon him that the pearls are not that valuable, we managed to purchase the trio for 650,000 total (approx. $65.00 US). He seemed very unhappy with me, although I know he still made a darn good profit, and I felt very pleased with my end of the bargain. Now that we had all that out of the way, it was time to enjoy LBJ! We gingerly stepped down into the somewhat unstable "boat" and sat upon rickety planks that barely covered the sloshy hull beneath us. His wife, son and brother were aboard, huddled underneath a ragged overhang. I surreptitiously tried to snap a photo or two without offending the owner and his family (do they live on this thing???). It really is a marvel of boat building prowess, this strange little vessel that served as our water taxi. The price is $70,00 based on a R/T.  OK, for roughly $7, we can do this…I thought.
Our "Taxi"

After a very bumpy and wet ride into the town, we were unceremoniously dumped at a high concrete wharf. We had to walk out onto the tip of the bow and practically crawl up onto the filthy wharf. I was wearing a skirt for goodness sake! I told Frank I had high anxiety about getting back on that scary little boat, but what choice did we have?

LBJ waterfront

filling the diesel tanks

the streets of LBJ

We sought out Dana and Mark from Northfork who were already in town with Peter and Evelyn (Renegade). After a quick recon through the town we noted right off many, many dive shops. This is a world-class scuba area, specializing in live aboard dive adventures. We ran into several cruisers and other westerners strolling through the little tourist town. Of note were: the Flores Spa, the Bajo Bakery and the many upscale restaurants that offered free wifi. I plopped down at the bakery to join our friends from Christine Anne and Fayaway for an iced coffee while Frank set off to find an ATM. Eventually we wandered over to Mediterraneo, an upscale Italian restaurant that appeared to be THE favored hangout. Inside Mark, while lounging in an oversized beanbag chair, explained to us that Dana was at a three-hour spa appointment and that he and baby Walker were having a little guy-time over coffee and wifi. We like this place!  Frank and I enjoyed a delicious lunch with a large group of our friends who had also converged on this popular spot, and then afterward several of us walked over to book our 3-hour spa indulgences. Five of us booked out the entire spa for the next day from 10 AM – 1 PM.

Afterward, Sheila, Cheryl and I left the guys at the bar and set off to do a little grocery shopping. Well, that was the plan.  Every shop here is different and carries only certain goods, and of those most are dry goods and junk food. Anything fresh must be obtained at a roadside stand or at the open-air market. There is absolutely no cheese or dairy or refrigerated/frozen goods of any kind available (nor has there been elsewhere before this), so we don't know where on Earth the restaurants get their supplies. Amazingly, after having visited half a dozen shops I only came away with Mentos, crackers and some cookies. Yes, we thrive on a balanced diet.

Grudgingly, Frank and I finally returned to the wharf for our taxi ride back out to Destiny. The tide was way out, so fortunately our Boat Boy met us at the bottom of some concrete stairs so we wouldn't have to figure out how to get down into the scary little boat. Of course, the stairs were covered in SLIME, and we are wearing flip-flops. Great. We both very ungracefully slipped and slid down and then crawled up onto the pointy bow and literally crab-walked over splintery planks to a seated position, bracing ourselves for the wet and rolly ride back out to Destiny. Most of our goods got slopped with water over the low freeboard. I kept thinking to myself; "Thank God Karen isn't with us. She would be so sick by now!" That ride is not for the faint of heart or the queasy of stomach, especially for those prone to motion sickness.  We spent the rest of our evening just resting and recovering from the big outing into town and after a quiet dinner I hammered Frank in a game of Baja Rummy.

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