There is a battle going on in my hotel room between the insidious smell of raw sewage and the chemical aroma of some sort of air freshener. It is a bitter, old conflict with an uncertain outcome. At times it appears that the chemical smell has the upper hand, at times the biological one overpowers. It is an olfactory roller coaster that turns the stomach. My room is not special; this existential struggle grips the better part of this town. I’m referring to Labuan Bajo, a two-mosque port town on the island of Flores, with only two things going for it.
First, the sunsets here are improbably gorgeous day after day after day. The port is dotted with fishing and diving boats, and the horizon offers a splash of small, picturesque islands. When the sun rushes down, the sky ignites in violent hues of red, yellow and purple. If the moment catches you on the top deck of Osteria del Mare, the only decent restaurant in town I found, the universe reduces to you, the sunset, and the blessed breeze.
Second, the reason I’m here: Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the Komodo National Park, an expanse of ocean where marine life is protected, and is therefore spectacular. I am here to board a boat that will take me diving for four days. Oh, and they also have Komodo dragons on some of the islands.
Labuan Bajo is a confusing blend of squalor and beauty. On one hand, the town is a shithole. More literally than figuratively. Raw sewage runs everywhere, and the smell of anaerobic decomposition terrorizes the port area. The houses on the hill generally evade the miasma; their sewage flows downhill and the breezes purify the air.
It has more bakeries per street-running chicken than any other place I’ve seen in Indonesia. German, French, Belgian, your pick. It also has a number of restaurants which aim to be superior, some with a more legitimate claim than others (as I am writing this I’m sucking on Pepto Bismol and regretting the lavish sum of money I left at “Made In Italy” for the only meal in South East Asia that has managed to make me sick).
The slum that lines the port is as picturesque as it is unsanitary. Its houses are painted in cheerful colors, people are friendly, clothes dry on lines, roosters root in the trash. Most of the roosters you run into are prize fighters, and look rather threadbare. I meet the six times champion of Labuan Bajo, a mean looking cock covered in bald spots and not much comb remaining. His owner feeds him lovingly, by hand, every day.
The main road that runs along the port is lined with dive shops run by expats. For the most part they are young, bright, and hail from Europe or Australia.
Why are you here?, I ask a few of them
For the best diving in the world, they invariably reply
I look at the horizon, from where mysterious islands beckon, and I can almost understand. Almost.