Labuan Bajo: back in tourist country

We are working our way toward Labuan Bajo, the town at the west end of Flores. There, for the first time in many months, we’ve converged with the popular tourist track. Labuan Bajo is crowded with shops and restaurants geared towards visitors, from well-heeled adventurous souls to shaggy backpackers. The lure is the adjacent Komodo National Park: it’s home to the famous Komodo dragons, and has a reputation for excellent diving as well.

We even got to sail a little. Crazy!

As much as we are excited to see these big monitors and experience the fantastic marine biodiversity of the park, the fact that our sights are set on Labuan Bajo because Hyo will fly out from there dampens enthusiasm on Totem. It’s with mixed feelings then that we arrive, because it means her visit with us is drawing to a close. She’s not just a close friend, she fits so smoothly in on Totem it’s really like saying goodbye to a member of our family.

Last dinner with Hyo
last dinner with Hyo – Labuan Bajo

It’s interesting how being back along the more well-trod cruising path changes our arrival. The anchor has barely stuck in the sand before we are greeted by a longboat that offers (in good and very polite English) to help us with everything from sourcing fuel and groceries to selling pearl necklaces and carvings. It’s a little more sophisticated than the guys who approached us in Maumere, but bears the same reminder: we’re part of a target market once again.

Trading posse hits Totemthe hawker posse lined up behind Totem

One of the great delights of the cruising life for our family is to step into communities and experience them without feeling like walking dollar signs. This is inevitably much more difficult when we converge with tourist tracks. I place a great deal of value on the opportunity to experience people in a new place as they may experience us: with open curiousity, but without demands. It’s just a little harder in places like Labuan Bajo.

Trading posse hits Totem
treasure trove of (mostly) pearl necklaces

What may make it somewhat different for us this time around is that our arrival in Labuan is in the off-season. Besides lowering the tourist count in town, cruising boats don’t start arriving in numbers into this area for a couple of months. In Labuan Bajo, we work out a deal on diesel early on. The hawker boats don’t really arrive in numbers until we are anchored out in the islands of the national park, a few days later.

Hard selling begins in earnest when several boats tackle us at once (making me nostalgic for the unspoken one-dugout-at-a-time pecking order of Papua New Guinea) in an anchorage off Komodo island. It’s a little overwhelming, because we were at the end of a long day. Everyone wants to talk at once earn their chance for a sale by being louder then their neighbor. Talking to the guys (because inevitably here, they seem to be male), we convince them that we will happily look at their wares tomorrow and are interested in a few specific things (I want to find a shirt and carving to bring back for friends in the states, and am curious to see more of the pearls for the same reason). With seeds planted for items they can bring tomorrow, they switch gears from selling and we can actually have a conversation and learn about their village and life on Komodo. Do we get this chance to just sit and talk because there aren’t a pile of cruising boats around? Maybe. They do come back the next day, of course, and as I suggested I make a few purchases. It gets a little chaotic and we find ourselves wishing there were other boats to distract some of our would-be suppliers. So… maybe it’s *not* easier off season? I don’t now. But it really was pleasant to talk to them, once they got that we Would Not Buy… that day, anyway.

This is just one peek at how it looked when the sellers came by the following day. It was MAYHEM.

Trading posse hits Totem
Everybody is vying for attention for their goods

We bought a few things, as we planned, and as we had told them we would- but it kind of gave me a headache.

It was a relief when the 43m Calliope came in and they took off for greener pastures. YOu know what, though? The guys came back later sporting branded shirts / caps, and bringing happy reports of a pleasant crew on the megayacht. Nice.

Calliope made us feel small

A few days later, anchored off Gili Lawa Laut, we see some of the same guys that had been on Totem at Komodo. We have spent enough of late that interested in buying anything more, but find they are interested in bartering. It’s unexpected, since other cruisers we had asked about trading in Indonesia indicated that it just wasn’t done- unlike PNG, there’s a cash economy and the barter system isn’t typical. It turns out we have some fenders and line that they’d love to have, so a few small deals are struck.

Now that's a fish!
We traded for this stunner of a fish. OMG it was delicious.

We invite them aboard for a cold drink, but a day-trip boat arrives from Labuan Bajo and opportunity awaits. Before leaving, though, they tell us this spot Totem is in gets rolly- since we plan to stay until morning, they recommend we move to another bay around the corner if we’d like a good night’s sleep.

Gili Lawa laut
We moved, and it was awesome.

I’m so happy they shared this with us. There, in a heartbeat, returns the spirit I’d missed somewhat during our stay in Komodo. Whether we move or not, they have just treated us like people instead of dollars. I sit in the cockpit and just grin.

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