We take birthday wishes seriously in Convivia. We keep presents small and homemade, as the real celebration is in the cake. Cakes are dreamed up layer by layer, often years in advance. Miles wishes for his eighth birthday were a stuffed mouse, a watch, pizza for dinner, and a caramel, chocolate, marshmallow and chocolate ganache layer cake. All of his wishes seemed totally reasonable thanks to my mom sending a birthday watch to us before we even left Brisbane. I had a stuffed mouse pattern on board, along with fabric and stuffing. I stowed a stash of Belgian chocolate under my bed in June and in Darwin I packed into my teeny tiny fridge the cream, butter, and mozzarella necessary for the big day. Somewhere along the way Miles decided on a bigger wish, “I want to see dragons on my birthday.”
We always remember back to his fifth birthday, a total flop. The Fijian butter was disgusting, the frosting inedible. His only wish that year, an English speaking boy between the ages 4 and 10 to play with, impossible. Six and seven were good birthdays (complete with homemade dinosaurs and English speaking boys) but I still felt like we owed him a little something to make up for the fifth. Dragons! We could totally pull off dragons!
In a week where we saw the sun rise most mornings we arrived early to the waters of Komodo National Park. We watched monkeys play on the beach as we set our anchor in the harbor in Rinca. My day was filled with candy making and baking. My first cake pan was filled with Tongan vanilla marshmallow. I poured chewy caramel into the other. Our friends Gwynn and Trevor from the boat Peregrine sailed in and anchored close by. Coffees were brewed, more coffee was roasted. In spare moments I sewed ears and eyes and whiskers onto little mice. When the sun set and it got cooler I baked a cake. What a lovely lead up for a celebration!
At five the alarm chimed. “Good morning mom! Thanks for making my cake last night. Good morning dad! Thanks for sailing us to Rinca.” Miles opened his many handmade presents from Ruby, his mice from me, and his watch from Grand. He was thrilled and satisfied and it wasn’t even dawn.
We were greeted at shore by our guide Safe (pronounced Sa-Fay) and his stick. Safe alternately spends ten days at Rinca as a guide and ten days with his family in Labuan Bajo. Every single day he uses his stick to fend off dragons. He led us to the ranger station where Miles introduced himself and got a free entrance ticket for his birthday. I like the slow speed of business here, where each interaction includes shared introductions, finding out where everyone calls home and where they are from originally, and inevitably learning about their families.
We chose a medium hike, bringing us through the savannah and by the nesting female dragons, elevating us to the view spot on the hill, and back down through the jungle all following the game paths for a couple hours. But first, before we got started, we got to observe the Komodo dragons sunning themselves in the warm morning light. Safe brought Miles and Ruby quite close and I didn’t take my eyes off them for a second. These animals eat monkeys and deer whole, and poison water buffalo with their deathly bite. They even eat their own babies. Surely mine looked delicious. It ended well and we all walked on.
The forest was filled with monkey sounds, and bird calls, and fragrant plants that were all unknown to us. We asked dozens of questions and looked around everywhere. In the silence I thought about how this nature walk was similar to so many others. I’ve been taking walks in the woods all my life, using the same sort of clues to figure out who and what was hiding behind the leaves. The footprints of deer were familiar, as was the scat. It was obvious where the water buffalo had been. Footprints and scat were familiar, but dragon tail marks curving left and right, now that was something I never, in a million years, thought I would see. Only in this tiny part of the world, on Rinca and Komodo islands, can you find dragon tail trails. Oh my.
It wasn’t even eight in the morning, and once again we had already been rewarded with something absolutely spectacular, a destination difficult to get to and hard earned, another one I’m so deeply grateful for. As we walked down the biggest hill Miles said to me, “do you think I could see a rhino for my ninth birthday?”