What life is like on an island of Komodo dragons.
At the airport in Labuan Bajo, there were glamorous pictures of Komodo Dragons everywhere. One was posing in front of a secluded beach. One was looking back at a sunset.
We arranged for a small wooden boat to take us to Rinca and Komodo Islands. The crew comprised of a father and son duo, Captain Rudy and Grushal. In the bright sun, the sea, surrounding islands, and the sky provided deep contrasts. The islands comprised of small hills uniformly carpeted with lime green grass, looking rough. These islands were rather arid. One island only had a lone tree at the top of its hill. On another island, a stretch of hills had a line of trees only at the top as if they decided to climb up from wherever they were born to settle down in a line to enjoy the best vantage point.
After two hours of sailing, we reached Rinca. We saw over a hundred mangrove saplings with small cardboard signs next to each of these with names of people and their country of origin written on them. When we asked our guide, Adi, he said, “Those are the names of people killed by the Komodo Dragons. They didn’t bother to take guides and look what happened to them.” But I was skeptical of this ferocious image portrayed by the nature television channels, used to hype up any physical trait of the animals they had managed to make a film on. On further nagging, Adi relented, “Don’t worry, those were names of people who had planted those saplings under a conservation program.”
Adi took another shot at melancholy, “Women having periods better avoid visiting the Komodos. They can smell blood from far and can come chasing.” Just when I thought Adi would begin blaming the Komodos for global warming, we came across the park’s kitchen. A dozen dragons were slumbering under and around the stilted house. Adi screamed, “These are pensioner Komodos, old lazy hags hoping to get easy food from a kind cook.”
These Komodos looked uninterested in anyone around. There were seven of them, some females, which are smaller. They were far from any anthropomorphic idea of beauty. Their dotted dark brown skin had many wrinkles and at the neck. Their big claws were hooked. An inverted smile adorned their faces, like a constant pout from a century old grumpy grandmother. They were surrounded by tourists who were gasping at every small move they made: a flick of the long forked yellow tongue, a gentle nudge from their hind legs, a slow fall of a thick lump of saliva from one’s upper teeth, or a menacing slow turn of the neck to look right into someone’s eyes.
But I felt that they have a particularly adorable way of lying down with their small chubby hands and legs spread out perpendicular to their bodies. This makes it appear as if the komodos are somehow grappling on to an earth that they know is constantly rotating and that things are not as stable as they appear. And with their rather endearingly round black and shiny eyes, they seem to appeal to everyone around to join them in lying down and hold onto the ground.
Adi broke my meditation, “Tell me three similarities between humans and komodos…. Well, their babies take nine months to come out. They also suffer from bad breath. And they are usually monogamous. Ok, that’s not a similarity, is it?” he laughed boisterously, “But there are many differences too. There are four males for every female komodo. And komodo mothers can give birth without needing a man.” He looked at me, “Imagine if you were a komodo male. You will have to overcome all these struggles and then you will end up with a partner who has bad breath.”
After Rinca, we visited Komodo Island too, where there were a few dragons around water holes and on hill tops. There are around three thousand dragons left in the world, and just under half of them are in Rinca. Komodo Island had the largest population while some parts of Flores and the surrounding islands have only a handful.
As the sun was about to say goodbye, we dropped anchor at a small bay at Komodo Island in Indonesia. As I sat at the front of the boat, the sense of enormity of the landscape in its entirety started to set in. The sun was now distributing its parting gift to mankind, an array of colours in the sky. The bright green of the surrounding hills and the blue of the sea gently fell asleep. The sun left after tenderly pulling a giant dark blanket over them. A bunch of flying foxes, which locals call ‘Batman’, left the hills.
Three small canoes were approaching us, a lone rower in each of them. They put a knot around our boat and stabilized their canoes. One offered us beer, another pulled out small wooden statues of Komodo Dragons while the other asked us if we want to buy some fish. When we smiled and declined, they just hung around holding on to our boat. Their clothes were stained and tattered. I asked them their names: Ashi, Edi and Tesh. They climbed on to our boat and sat down in front of me. They kept looking at me quietly. I tried to have a conversation in my broken Bahasa Indonesian. Lobo, my wife, came over and sat next to me.
In the dim lights, all I could see was their lean frames with white eyes. They came from the small village on Komodo Island. They had a habit of speaking in unison reiterating each other. “I am twenty, he is thirty three,” said two of them. Simultaneously, the other guy said, “I am thirty-three; these two are in their twenties.” “I am already married and I have a daughter,” said Edi and Tesh together while Ashi stopped at, “I am already married.” We got them thinking by asking what they would like their daughters to become when they grew up. Now they were speaking separately. Edi said, “Teacher, or perhaps doctor.” Tesh repeated and Ashi nodded in agreement. Then Tesh said, “No, no, she should become a police woman.” Everyone agreed again. “There is a lot of corruption,” said Ashi. “Police keep harassing us, our daughters can punch them and change them,” said Edi. We all agreed amid laughter. Edi then suggested, “Why stop at police woman, why not become the President of Indonesia? Even more punch.” More laughter followed.
Ashi said, “The local population here are descendants of convicts who had been exiled from the nearby island of Sumbawa many years ago. We revere the dragons. Tesh interjected, “We used to feed deer meat to the dragons once every year. Now, the government doesn’t allow us.”
At times we just sat quietly, looking at one another. Tesh said with an air of authority, pointing his finger at us and then throwing it down, “I liked talking to you two.” He said that in a rough way that seemed completely earnest. I loved that moment; complete strangers connected by the fragile thread of my broken Bahasa Indonesian and a much more intricate and complicated mesh of threads making strangers want to know about each other.
As they prepared to sail away, Edi asked, “Do you have some medicines? My daughter has fever for the last two days.” I gave him some medicines with directions but asked him to definitely consult a doctor if things don’t improve. Edi agreed to do so but the three spoke together again, “Our village has no doctor. We only have a mosque.”
After dinner, we went up to the roof of the boat. Our boat turned off its lights and the noisy generators. In the vast darkness that followed, the starlight was still providing silhouette to the hills. What were the Komodo Dragons doing over there?
In this moonless night, distant galaxies were visible as glittering mist. The sky was a dark bowl punctured by several small holes through which the universe was pouring in. The sea below was rippling gently. We could hear small fish breaking the surface every now and then. And then we noticed the magic of the reflections of two bright stars flirting with each other. In the rippling water, their reflections kissed and then jumped away. These stars, separated by billions of light years for billions of years, got to embrace and play with each other every night in these waters. As we watched this miracle, we recounted how our own lives had criss-crossed. Both of us had been born in small towns in China and India respectively. How did we overcome geography, our birth into different religions, our years of upbringing in different cultures, our food habits, and belief systems to come to accept one another as soul mates?
That night, the conditions at Komodo Island were as such. We felt as one with the stars, the sky, the hills, the sea, what lied deep within the sea, the fish, the Batman, Captain Rudy and Grushal, Edi, Tesh, and Ashi. We kissed.
This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Journeys With the Caterpillar, a humble and humorous attempt to capture the dramatic simplicity of Nusa Tenggara Timur(NTT) in Indonesia, covering the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba. You can buy the complete book here on Amazon for $2.99.