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The Tale Of A Gender Fluid Oyster and Other Stories . . . Sophie Digby Heads East.

Our story begins on a Bali to Labuan Bajo flight. One hour, an unsavoury bun and a flick through the inflight magazine later and the massive airport lettering claims Bandar Udara Komodo. And into the dragons lair we step, but sadly for my colleague who has yet to come face to face with one or two of these prehistoric monitor lizards we are here on another mission – so we will not be heading to Rinca or Komodo, the dragon islands that sit to the west of Labuhan Bajo on the island of Flores. Our journey is one of pearls, bats and synodic permaculture.

To give you a little insight into Labuan Bajo, western-most port of the island of Flores: it is a dusty frontier town with an as-yet-undeveloped hotel industry but boasts a highly developed diving industry… PADI signs all round!

A multitude of mobile motorbike “shops” park, immobile, portside. Bananas by the bunch load and heads of naked corn ripen or dry on blue and white tarps on the floor… boatmen shout to one another and the market smells, pungent, with stalls and stalls of fresh and drying fish. The latter, enterprisingly, also seem to sell “Pulsa” (mobile top up vouchers). Bizarre, but eerily enough, comforting at the same time since we are so far from our ‘hood’. Our captain pops his head up across the market place and hurries us out of the odorous warehouse into a waiting speedboat.

Instead of dragons, we are heading to visit one of God’s original transgender creations – the humble oyster in its current habitat, on one of the Atlas Pearls farms. (These are also located in North Bali, in Punggu – Flores and in Alyui, Alor and Lembata in West Papua).

Oysters, transgender? You muse.

Stacey Connel of Rodney’s Oyster House in Ontario states, “Oysters are protandrous hermaphrodites. They have this fluid approach to sexuality and gender. They change from male to female and back again, depending on their community. If there are too many males, they can switch to females.” So saying we head over to Atlas Pearl’s farm to see the process of pearl creation by both genders of these bi-valve molluscs.

To give you a brief background, Atlas have been pearling for over 20 years, in fact they are a global leader in eco-pearling, and from breeding to jewellery design there are about 3,000 hands that nurture the whole process from beginning to end. This ‘evolution’ is made up of eight steps, namely breeding, grow-out, seeding, pearl farming, harvesting, grading, matching and design.

Here on Atlas’ Punggu island, visitors get to enjoy an expeditious immersion into the world of Pinctada, a genus of the saltwater oyster that is able to produce a pearl within the ‘mantle’. Since the charming Atlas Pearls’ family invites you all to visit their farms for free, I’d rather not have to issue a spoiler alert. But to round off the half-day trip the knowledgeable staff takes us through the eight steps, demonstrate how to extract a pearl then whisk us into the air-conditioned show room to have a go at grading.

There is more to grading than meets the eye (from D-A and even A-AAA) and since Atlas has the experience then we’re happy for the assist. Just to let you into a secret, world-renowned Mikimoto purchases some of their high quality pearls from this very company, but I digress.

Complimentary lunch – with the thankfully mandatory cold towels – is served on the terrace. The view of the azure blue sea overlooking the farm and towards Flores is blissful, breezy and relaxing so when the captain once again pops his head up, this time over the verandah, it’s obvious our number is up and it’s time to boat it back to Bajo.

I always wonder if one doesn’t dive or snorkel in LB then what on earth is one supposed to do all day? Part of the day has not only been fun, educational with a lovely boat trip, surprisingly it was also 100% complimentary and dry, impressive! (I believe there is a small charge for those wishing to join the Atlas Treasure Hunt. Having booked one day in advance and bringing their own snorkeling gear they can try their luck out in the lagoon to find their very own spherical nacre).

So now we best get about sorting our Part 2?

Back to port and a quick rendezvous at Bajo Bay Fishermen’s Club, well located to the north of the whole port complex with a fabulous view over the harbour. We are meeting up with the owner and crew of Aqua Luna Selini, a traditional Indonesian sailing phinisi. Its five cabins will actually stay unoccupied as our trip is limited to a sunset cruise to the magical Kalong Island; next time, we dream, and there will definitely be a next time. Wine in the cooler and tapas prepared on the comfortable cushioned deck and we once again leave harbour, alongside a few other sunset cruise boats, mostly phinisi, as part of a band of marine gypsies in their brightly painted, wooden water-caravans.

Kalong Island merits zero attention during the day, however at sunset just offshore the gypsies gather, boat engines lulling, all eyes are on this well-forested island. Bated breath and cameras at the ready. As the sun dips, the sky turns orange and the band gets impatient, the sky starts filling with now one, now two, then a few flying foxes. Over the next few minutes the sky above darkens with the hundreds possibly even thousands of fruit bats leaving the mangroves of Kalong heading in the direction of Bajo. Nature as always impressing us to our core.

Twilight and we are to make one last stop on our non-aquatic agenda (non-aquatic as in no snorkeling and no diving). Portside, transport awaits (NB: no taxis in LB so private drivers are the only option or public transport – bemo). Our destination is a venue called MadeInItaly. Can someone please explain? (And no it’s not a typo, it’s written as one word). Located on the fringes of Bajo, on Jl. Pantai Pede, Trip Advisor gives MadeInItaly a #4 out of 29 restaurants in this frontier town. Personally, this band of gypsies can only ever give it a #1. Without doubt it is some of the best food I have ever put in my mouth, and it is visually delightful too. More importantly the owner is so passionate about quality and provenance that he has created his very own synodic permaculture farms. To “blow your hippy noodle” is the salad with 21 edible micro leaves and edible flowers, all planted in line with the phases of the moon – hence synodic. The antipasti, secondi piatti, pastas, pizzas and desserts that we try are just divine. Absolutely no clue as to how chef-owner Mario can reach this level of perfection all the way out here! Plus the wine list is nothing to be sneezed at either. Definitely impressed.

So wrapping up our “not getting wet” day in Flores? Atlas, Aqua Luna Selini and MadeInItaly, it really has been su-pearl-ative! (Groan).


Pearls by @atlaspearlsbali Bats by @aqualunaselini
Synodic Permaculture by @miiflores