Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
From Darwin I flew to Bali for a few days of orientation and decompressing. Reversing the direction of my original plan, I then flew deep into Flores, East Nusa Tenggara for an island-hopping overland trip back to the relative comforts of Bali. Most of this time I spent in Flores. By bus and by bemo, I slowly headed west from Maumere to Labuan Bajo. In between taxing jaunts on public transport I enjoyed healthy doses of culture, villages, volcanoes, hot springs, snorkeling, and scuba diving -- and isolation from the familiar comforts of the West.
Heading east from Bali you encounter the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, tiny Komodo and Rinca, Flores, and finally Timor. To the southwest of Flores is Sumba, and to the north is Sulawesi and Iryan Jaya. Flores had just begun to get a whiff of regular tourism when the 1998 crisis in Indonesia hit, followed about a year later with East Timor declaring independence and the subsequent lootings, pillaging, battles, threats against foreigners, and overall chaos. This civil unrest devastated the tourism industry in Flores. Even though none of the unrest and conflict affected distant Flores (or West Timor, for that matter), the mere proximity of East Timor on the map was enough to slow tourism to a trickle. Though the traffic is slowly increasing year by year, today there is dilapidated evidence of a trade that was: empty losmen, restaurants, and tour services, owned by friendly locals with a keen eye for Westerners. The relative dearth of tourists makes travel extremely cheap in Flores, even compared to the rest of Indonesia, as well as conspicuous.
When I arrived in Bali, I experienced an immediate sense of having "gone third world", however, this was nothing compared to Flores. Bali has an extremely well developed tourist infrastructure. Even though it was not high season, there were plenty of other tourists in the area. I went to Kuta, famous as a tourist beach nexus, full of surfers, sightseers, revelers, and most of all, hawkers. Like the famous rave beach scenes of Thailand, it is now fashionable in the backpacker circuit to speak disparagingly of Kuta and its excesses. Nevertheless, most travelers end up passing through Kuta at least for a while, because -- well, its Kuta. That's what you do. So I spent a few days in Kuta, formulating a game plan for the rest of my visit to Indonesia. These days were mostly spent wandering around the shops and the beach or sitting in the numerous bars and restaurants watching movies. This last is one of the more common activities in Kuta, especially in the evenings, sitting around watching movies on big screen TV whilst enjoying a meal and a beer (or several). The movies in question are very recent pirated versions of the current offerings from Hollywood, mostly in the action and comedy genres. For a change of pace you can sit in Tubes bar and watch surfing carnage on big screen TV. For live entertainment, you can usually find bands playing reggae or rock music, Indonesian style, or you can sit in the numerous clubs and watch the Bali Boys (or Kuta Cowboys, as they're sometimes called) dance in the vicinity of Western women. For the truly motivated, you can actually get up and dance, but this requires energy that has often been baked away by sun and beer.
One of my immediate projects was to get my hands on some Balinese fruit, of which there is ample variety that most Westerners have never seen. A couple of my favorites were the manggis (or mangosteen) and the salak. The manggis has a thick red rind, more pointed on one end, that tears easily as you twist it apart to reveal soft white segments of fruit that look like big fat grub worms. Popping them into your mouth is something of an epiphany, for they are sweet and floral, and I just don't have any sort of fruit analogy for the flavor. They are extremely tasty. The salak is a different sort of experience. It has a thin brown peel that looks like snakeskin. Peeling this off with your fingers reveals several white segments, but firm, like a soft nut. These segments, the largest one or two of which have a pit in the middle, have the texture of a water chestnut, but taste like a cross between an apple and a pineapple. Mmmm.
So I made the decision to fly to my easternmost destination and work my way back to Bali -- in this way I could avoid getting stranded by unreliable travel schedules and end up missing my rendezvous in Bali with Susan. Off I went, casually correlating islands outside of my plane window with those on my map, wondering what I would find in Flores.
Flores could not be more different than Bali (particularly tourist havens like Kuta). For one thing, it lies on the other side of the Wallace Line, the imaginary dividing line between Asian and Australian flora and fauna in the Malay Archipelego. West of this line, the flora and fauna are very much like those found in Asia, whereas east of this line the plants and critters are more related to those found in Australia. The line passes between Bali and Lombok. The weather in the eastern islands is hot and dry as a result of the blast of winds they receive from Australia.
Furthermore, Flores is very poor economically. This volcanic island supports itself primarily through agriculture, fishing, handcrafts and small scale mining. Without the tourist trade to support it, however, it has been fully exposed to the economic troubles that have ravaged most of Indonesia. It is very diverse culturally, with five distinct linguistic and cultural regions separated by the rugged volcanic terrain as you head east and west. Animism still runs strong and deep with the people; even though technically they are about 50% Christian and 50% Muslim in Flores, these religions are welded onto the old animistic beliefs in many areas. In colonial days Flores was controlled by the Portuguese, and then by the Dutch, right up until Indonesia declared independence after WWII. Four years later the Dutch were convinced by the rest of the world to recognize that independence.
So I landed in Maumere, feeling pretty disoriented, and situated myself in a simple hotel. I spent a couple of days taking care of bank business and simply absorbing the vibe of the place. My first impression was that Maumere was sort of beat down, dusty, and ratty, even correcting for the third world norm. For the largest city on Flores, it seemed like it should be just a bit nicer, and I eventually found out why this is so. In 1992 an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 hit just 35 km (21.7 miles) off of the coast of Flores where Maumere was situated. The earthquake itself leveled nearly 90% of the buildings in Maumere. To add insult to injury, a series of tsunamis soon followed. The waves were reported to be as high as 25 meters (80 feet) with an eventual run-up of 20 meters (65.6 feet). Maumere was, for the most part, completely destroyed. The buildings there today are rather hastily constructed concrete boxes -- functional, but uninspiring.
In Bali (and Lombok) tourists are usually under a constant barrage from hawkers selling anything and everything (Transport? Transport? Hello friend. Transport? Hello? Excuse me. Transport? Hello?). In Flores, thankfully, this constant annoyance from hawkers is mitigated to nonexistent, mostly because it hasn't occurred to them (to be fair, this is more directly due to the fact that there are hardly any tourists). Instead, there is the more benign annoyance of honestly curious locals wanting to hone their English skills. By far the most prevalent symptom of this is a constant hail of "Hello Mister!" (regardless of your sex) from nearly everyone you pass on the street. Most, especially younger kids, expect a response -- a wave, a hello, something. If they don't get it they will get louder and more persistent in their friendly greeting, saying it over and over. With a group of children this can be downright unbearable, because a simple hello to the whole group will not suffice -- if one child gets a response, then each child will expect their own response, and the cacophony of "hello misters" will not die down until you either acknowledge each one with a wave or hello or eventually get out of earshot. Once they get a response, for their collection I guess, they beam with a broad smile and run off laughing -- if your lucky and they don't decide to try again. Sometimes, depending on the region, you might get "hello miss" instead of mister, or even "hello mistess" with some of the more confused younger children. Every now and then someone will try out a bit of slang they're overheard, and say something like "hi guys" even if you are walking alone. The adults will say "hello mister", also, but then proceed to practice their English -- of which they usually know about three or four phrases. These 'conversations', like a script, would invariably consist of "Hello mister", "What is your name", and "Where are you going?" This last one can be particularly irritating, because they really are just being friendly and the typical Western reaction is along the lines of "none of your damn business." Since they don't know that the question is sort of personal, my typical responses that were bound to confound and mystify, were "hither and yon" or, more simply, "this way". Traveling in this region requires extra energy to constantly deal with the curious locals while staying serene. Their curiosity and persistence can be sort of charming at first, but after a month of traveling and going through the ritual hundreds of times a day, it can wear pretty thin. Towards the end of the Flores trip I had to repeat the mantra "they are only being polite" constantly when walking down streets and grinding my teeth with a smile.
There are scads of motorcycles in Indonesia, and many times these conversation rituals would take place with someone who pulls up on a motorcycle. One of these times I was shocked when a man broke the script and started asking articulate questions about how I was enjoying Flores, etc. As it turns out, he is an English teacher and was excited that I was a native speaker of American English (Americans are pretty few and far between in Indonesia, especially throughout East Nusa Tenggara). He wanted to know if I would come "interact" with his English students so they could hear the real thing. This sounded interesting enough, so in a diplomatic mood I agreed. Later that day he picked me up, and perched on the back of his motorcycle, weaving in and out of kamakaze traffic, we headed off to the classroom. I think it was private lessons, because the classroom was off to the side of a local house, and there were only six students, maybe 14 years old or so. I was envisioning sitting off to the side while they had their lesson, occasionally stepping in to clarify or answer questions. Instead, we assembled in the classroom and the teacher handed me a dry-erase marker and said "Okay, you may start", after which he sat off to the side, silent. I stood there regarding the six silent students in front of me and the dry erase board, and delivered my first bit of genuine American English to my eager pupils: "Uh..." It turned out okay, though. After scratching my head a bit, I introduced myself, learned their names, asked about their hobbies, and drew a map of North America on the board and talked about various bits and pieces of American geography, sights, and bits they might have heard about. Before I knew it, around two hours had passed and class was over. Though it wasn't quite what I expected, it was a good experience over all.
I did not travel to any of the nearby seaside 'resorts' near Maumere, nor did I travel any further east into the smaller islands between Flores and Timor where traditional fishermen still hunt whales with harpoons out of small boats. After my brief stay, I instead headed west to the mountain village of Moni, thereby obtaining my first taste of public transport on Flores. As a tourist, there are essentially two ways of getting around the island short of bringing your own wheels: hiring a car and driver, or taking the public buses. You can hire the car and driver (fairly cheap by Western standards, but extremely costly by Flores standards) which will take you to the various major sites across the island in a few days, but in doing so you miss taking your time and getting a real feeling for local life. I opted for the buses, but was not sure what to expect. Along with a German friend I met in town, we hopped on the bus to Moni.
For short distances, such as within towns and between villages, people usually take little mini-buses called bemos. For more remote villages, many times it is a big Mitsubishi diesel truck, sort of a big flatbed with a roof and wooden slats forming rows of benches from front to back. But on the major routes there are public buses that are designed to sit about thirty people, but more typically transport more like fifty very crowded people, sitting in aisles, laps, hanging on the sides and back, and sitting on the roof along with all luggage, produce, pigs, goats, chickens, buckets of fish, and anything else that looks like it could conceivably fit on the bus. The buses are hot, the suspension is terrible, and the roads are invariably full of pits and damage from the last wet season. Whether it is a bemo or bus, there is an ear-splitting stereo turned up as loudly as possible, and always a couple of bus jockeys that ride along with the driver, taking care of securing luggage on the roof and collecting fares. The bus jockeys always hang outside the open side door (this door opens like on a school bus) or ride on the roof, and are in incredible shape. Indonesians in general are very lean and fit, and after one look at the bulging veins on the forearms of the jockeys you might assume they are rock climbers. They might as well be, because even when the bus is going full speed through slapping vegetation and bouncing potholes, the bus jockeys can be seen scrambling up and down from the roof of the bus, on the back, and back and forth through the side door. They aren't alone -- the locals have no problems engaging in this sort of bus wrangling, either. If the bus is full (and here I mean full by Indonesian standards, which is at least double what a typical Westerner would assume is full) then the locals scramble onto the top or hang off of the back. Usually there are a group of roof riders up there anyway, that simply prefer it to the stuffy inner compartment which is crammed full of sweaty people, clucking chickens, and the occasional weak stomach emptying its contents into a bag or onto a backpack. The locals are nonplussed by all of this -- they are cordial and friendly throughout such a trip, and I never once saw anyone get angry. At the same time, they don't seem very proactive in solving or informing people of problems. One ride in particular there was a load of fish on top, in buckets full of bloody gut water. One of the buckets kept sloshing on every bump and the resulting runoff would pour down the opening for the side door -- there are always at least four people standing and hanging from that door. One by one, people would realize that fish guts were pouring down their necks under their shirts, and would swiftly relocate either somewhere in the crowded bus or up on the roof. New people would hop on the bus, and seeing that the coveted door space was available would repeat the process -- nobody would warn them. Eventually some bright spark had the astonishing notion of closing the door, but this was only because when the door space was unoccupied the fish juice tended to get sucked in onto everyone else by the draft.
So I arrived in Moni, a charming little mountain village that was thankfully more cool than the lower coastal towns. Indonesia is hot and very humid, especially in between the wet and dry seasons. Villages and towns in Flores share many characteristics. The roads are not always paved, and other than the main street are usually either dirt or merely a path. Goats are mostly staked for grazing all over either side of the byways, but sometimes run around loose. Chickens are everywhere, almost always running rampant. How they sort out the ownership or even find their individual animals is beyond me. An hour-long non-ceasing chorus of roosters crowing greets you every dawn. There are lush gardens and trees in every available space, which rapidly diminish to scrub or bamboo outside of the village. Open air drainage ditches follow all main roads, and this includes all sorts of waste, although human waste is often deposited into septic tanks. Most things that can burn are burned outside individual dwellings for disposal. Villages and towns don't exactly stink, but the smell of rotting or burning vegetation is ever present. In general, despite swept dirt floors and dusty or muddy appearances in the streets, the towns and villages are very clean, and it is never difficult to tell the difference between an aqueduct (for say, bathing or the source of boiled drinking water) and a drainage ditch. In towns and larger villages, it is just as likely to encounter spotless floors surfaced with large, white tiles. Packed dirt floors aren't really dirty since they are swept several times a day. There are abundant geckos crawling over all walls and ceilings, particularly around lights. Geckos are good; besides being cool lizards, they eat mosquitoes.
Moni, an overgrown village but not quite a town, is the gateway to what is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Flores: Kelimutu, a volcano with a triple crater and as many colorful lakes within each crater. Each crater has a lake, all of which have a habit of changing colors over the years. Currently there is a bright turquoise lake, a deep rusty red brown lake, and a black lake. The typical thing to do is get up early, take a truck ride up to the lakes, and watch the sunrise. This is exactly what I did, despite the fact that the truck driver seems to have a monopoly on the practice and overcharges. The sunrise was spectacular, revealing the rugged terrain of Flores and gradually illuminating the crater lakes. Of the lakes, the turquoise one is by far the most beautiful. I stayed behind when the truck returned so I could hike around the rim of the lakes and up to the summit of the volcano. Afterwards I walked several miles down the mountain through some of the local villages, back to Moni.
The other main attractions here are traditional dance and the surrounding villages where a distinct form of ikat weaving is produced. Ikat is a fascinating weaving technique where the threads of the warp (not weft) are tie-dyed before they are arranged in the loom and woven. Each area of Flores has its own style of this weaving, represented by the colors and patterns employed. These days the hand woven sarongs take over a month to produce, and you can see women working the looms in the villages you visit. As it turns out, the ikat from the Ende/Moni region is what I liked best -- eventually, I picked up a sarong that was produced in this region.
One night in Moni I watched the local dance performance which showcases some of the traditional dance forms for the area. The dances were mostly characterizations about the various acts of dealing with the harvest and warfare. I found myself particularly interested in the music. Very rhythmic, but sort of jangly in a chaotic way at the same time with bells, drums, and gongs. One dance I found particularly impressive involved two dancers and four people operating long bamboo poles. Each bamboo handler would have the end of a pole in each hand, the other ends held by their partner. The poles were then arranged in a cross pattern (+). To the music all the poles would bang on the ground, twice touching together lengthwise and twice about a foot apart. While one set of poles was together, the other set was apart. In this arrangement, the two dancers performed an intricate, rotating stomp dance in and out of the gaps in the poles. The cadence increased to such a tempo that I completely lost track of whose feet were where at any given moment, and they somehow managed to evade the poles. Impressive coordination.
Later that night I bumped into a Belgian friend whom I had met walking down from Kelimutu. He was hamming it up with some locals in the middle of the dirt road, so I stopped and chatted. Turns out they were drinking arak, the distilled version of tuak, or cidery-tasting palm wine from the sap of certain types of palm trees. Arak is different no matter where you have it, and in this case it was pretty tasty either straight or mixed with 7-Up. A couple of other friends showed up, and eventually we all piled into the bungalow of one of the locals where we sat around on the floor listening to music and drinking arak. The locals did not speak to much English, but a good time was had by all. It was sort of surreal, sitting around and talking in broken English and Indonesian listening to a bizarre combination of Bob Marley and some terrible Best of Kenney Rodgers compilation. Kenney Rodgers did some horrid covers back in the late 70's where he must have been trying to break into the pop market. The locals thought it was fantastic; even though I am a bit of Kenney Rodgers fan I could certainly do without this phase of his career. Musically speaking, most all of Indonesia loves reggae and Bob Marley in particular. Beyond that, especially in the bemos and buses, you see rampant evidence of fandom for Brittany Spears and Shaniah Twain -- whether it is blasting through the speakers or plastered on the walls in the form of posters.
My lodgings in Moni were very basic -- just a room, a bed with mosquito net, and a mandi. The mandi is everywhere in Indonesia, and is just a squat-style toilet (sometimes a Western-style toilet), a big basin of water, and a scoop for the water. The water is used to wash waste down the toilet (even if it's Western-style, which can be irritating), as well as for bathing nearby. The mandi is designed for splashing around, with a floor drain, so you stand there and scoop water out of the basin onto yourself for a bath. In mountain towns such as Moni this can be very cold water; I think it takes a bit more will power to dump ice cold water over yourself as opposed to step forward into an ice cold shower. In the lower elevations the water is much warmer. There was a deck out front overlooking a green valley, where I spent plenty of time reading. Most everywhere in Indonesia includes breakfast with the cost of the room, and this is usually something simple like fried bananas or a banana pancake. This place also offered buffet-style dinners of spicy Indonesian fare: lots of rice, sauteed vegetables, potatoes in various forms, fried bits of chicken, and fish (seafood is always overcooked, whether grilled or fried). It doesn't bust new ground in world cuisine, but it's pretty good, especially when prepared at a home. At restaurants (rumah makans, or warungs on the street) the fare tends more towards Javanese or Chinese styles.
So after Moni I came down out of the mountains to Ende for a night, mainly to try and use the extremely slow internet connection I had heard was in the local post office. Ende is a larger town, and I spent some time wandering around the foodstuffs and markets. It was one of the first towns I encountered where the mosque blared out the periodic call to prayer for the area Muslims. After Ende I headed up to another mountain town by the name of Bajawa. Bajawa is in the Ngada region of Flores, and is well known for its area villages, volcanoes, and hot springs. While in Moni my German friend had told me about a guide in the area named Philipus who spoke English well and was a very informative fellow. I bumped into Philipus almost immediately at my chosen hotel, which is really not such a coincidence since hotels are where guides look for clients. I lined up a tour of some area villages for the next day.
We visited four villages in the area, plus one megalith site where one of the villages used to be. The villages of the Ngada all have a distinct layout, comprised of opposing rows of bamboo and thatch-roofed huts on either side of a broad courtyard -- the number of these huts depends on the number of clans in the village, and is a set number. In the courtyard are stone altars that serve as meeting places and for sacrificial ceremonies that almost always involve one or more animals (buffalo, pigs) getting their throats cut. Also in this courtyard are sets of totem poles (topped with a thatched conical roof) and miniature huts. There is one pole and hut for the male and female aspects of their traditions. The huts on either side, that people live in, have a distinct roof that begins like a normal roof and then turns into a steeper, tall roof, which in turn is topped by either a little house (birdhouse sized) or a man holding a spear. The shape of these roofs are due to the fact that each hut has a 'spirit house' room in the middle -- a house in a house -- with a fireplace, bed, decorations, etc. The spirit house has a tiny opening and a very high roof, and this is where the Ngada believe their ancestors live. The spirit houses are very well tended, and also tend to have little shrines with portraits of Jesus near the doorway. By making it a holy place as well, conflicts with the tenets of Christianity can apparently be avoided. There is no doubt that they believe the spirits of their ancestors live in these houses, though. If a particular person was bad, or evil, breaking the various codes of conduct the Ngada have, then it is believed they will forever wander around the village, lost. People claim that sometimes they will see a cat change into a monkey, for example, and this is a spirit wandering around restless because they were denied entry into the peaceful confines of the spirit house.
The Ngada are an interesting sort. They are matrilineal and matriarchal, so the power rests in the hands of the women, and all property and inheritance goes through the female lines. In this, they are unique on Flores. Men join the clan of their wives, and can have more than one wife (I don't know what clan they are if different wives are in different clans). Women can marry more than once, but never more than one man at the same time. However, only women can end a marriage in divorce. When they do this, the women keep the kids and all property. There is also a class system involved that dictates who can marry who and what class the children will be, but it is cyclical and complex. Interestingly, my guide Philip married a woman from outside of the Ngada region, from a patrilineal people up north. As a result, since neither of them will inherit anything from their parents, they have had to strike out on their own and build new lives from scratch (Philip did, however, have to pay the expensive bride price of two buffaloes and four or five pigs, a way of ensuring that prospective husbands can indeed provide for themselves and their family).
So in these villages I met with several of the village leaders (women) and some of the wise women. With some of the wise women I sat and chewed betel nut, quite popular in Flores, especially with the older generation. Betel nut is wrapped in a spicy green leaf, along with lime from ground up coral, and the whole mixture turns bright red and sort of tingles on the gums. It's supposed to give you a bit of a pick-me-up, but I didn't really notice anything. Many of the old folks will tell you it's for the teeth, despite having very few, and I finally figured out that it helps ease gum pain. Numerous old folks, women in particular, can be seen everywhere, chewing away with bright red teeth and finger tips. Personally, I liked the spiciness of the leaf, but the mixture was sort of bland like chewing on bark. Betel nut is often used in greeting when you visit the head of a village, and it's considered very impolite if you refuse any that is offered (you don't have to chew it, just accept it). Likewise, many of the villages expect an offering from you, but as a westerner these days its usually okay to offer cigarettes or a small donation to the village head.
Some of the villages we visited were over 800 years old, and that was measuring from the time they moved from older sites up on hills. We visited one of these sites, or megaliths. Back in the old days they used to make the altars with huge slabs of stones, huge platforms surrounded by vertical slabs of rock as tall as a man. Some of these were simply too heavy to move to the new locations, so were left at the old site (one presumes that they forgot how they moved them in the first place). The old sites are often still used on special occasions, but in general the 'newer' villages do not have altars that are as big and elaborate. As I said earlier, the number of huts in the village is limited by the number of clans. When the population grows too large, they move to a new place outside of the village. They are always part of that clan, however, and return to the original hut for special festivals, gatherings, ceremonies, and celebrations.
At one point during the day, Philip took me to the head of a valley near the base of massive Garung Inerie, near his home village of Langa, where there was an astonishing view. On the left was the towering, perfect cone of Inerie, 2245 meters (7400 ft) high, and on the left was the craggy, plush green peaks and plummets of Langa Hill. In these volcanic regions the rock and formations are often quite new and have not had a chance to erode significantly. So the hills are very steep, but also very green as the jungle covers every available surface. Looking at this hill on the right, and the descending valley to the sea below, I was struck by how crazy the hills looked. It really reminded me of the hills that Dr. Seuss used in illustrating his books, all very improbable looking.
As we were walking back through a bamboo forest, I had a funny conversation with Philip. He made an observation about how smart the area monkeys were. He noted how when you were hunting them, carrying a gun, that they were extremely difficult to spot, but when you were just strolling along, not hunting, then they were just everywhere. I looked at him and said "Hunting monkeys? You mean, to eat?" to which he responded "Yes, of course!" Looking perplexed, I said "What does monkey taste like???" He stood there and thought a moment, then said "Sort of like dog." I'm sure my jaw dropped, and I said "Dog? I've never had dog! What does dog taste like?" After a longer pause, Philip said "Hmmmm, maybe like horse?" At this point I gave up. I said "Oh..." and nodded sagely as if that answered my question. On a related point, these days you don't see too many dogs on Flores. There used to be tons, four or five per home, and as Philip noted above they were also a popular food item. But a few years ago there was a huge rabies epidemic in the dogs, and they were mostly killed to stop the rabies. On a not-so-related point, cats are quite common, but they all have bobbed or mangled tails -- this is deliberately done to all cats, for good luck.
The next day I roped three other tourists (two Swiss, one English) into going with Phillip and myself up to Garung Inelike, an area volcano that last erupted in January 2001. No other guides were taking people up this volcano, but I had heard through my German friend in Moni that Phillip was taking people. We were the fourth (tourist) group to go up since its eruption, and the first that was able to get down into the crater since the mud had dried out enough in the sun. Inelike is 1700 meters high (5600 feet) with its own crater lakes. There is no trail to the top, so Philip's guidance was well appreciated. The hike is rugged and steep, and we were feeling pretty good about getting to the top until we noticed some local girls from the village had caught up to us -- in bare feet. Ah well, that put us in our place. The crater was impressive, though not as big as Kelimutu -- evidence of the last eruption was abundant. Everything was gray and ashen; any trees left standing were mere skeletons coated with the same brush. The lakes were a brilliant rusty red-orange (like Kelimutu these have been changing colors, from blue-green to golden yellow, to red), and smells of sulfur abounded. We scrambled down into the crater, closer to the lakes, and had a good look into the chasm from which the last eruption emerged.
Afterwards we visited some nearby hot springs that were simply wonderful. These sulfur springs gurgle up at an impressive rate, and after swirling in a large pool descend with rapids into a cool stream about fifty yards below. At this junction there are smooth rocks with deep furrows in them where you can flop around and find the perfect temperature you need. I have been swimming under rapids before, but I must say this is the first time I've been swimming in rapids that feel like hot bathwater. Overhead were lush palms and banyan trees, and the whole scene was incredibly relaxing. Afterwards we wrapped up the day with a visit to an evening market, bustling with people selling all sorts of produce, fish, animals, and crafts.
During all of this Philip had invited me to come stay at his place if I was interested in getting a taste for what its like to live the local life. I agreed, and the next day I headed out to Langa village. There is a traditional Langa village, but Philip lives in one of the areas where people move when the original village gets too crowded. So where he lived was more modern than the traditional villages, but still very basic. He was in the process of rebuilding his house, and only about half of it was complete. It was dirt floors and a basic bed, and upstairs (more like up a ramp) there was an area without walls that he was in the process of closing up. It was sort of nice without the walls, though, because I could see the nearby perfect towering cone of Garung Ineria and pick up a pleasant breeze from down the valley. Outside the main structure he had an outdoor mandi (woven reed walls) and a simple outdoor kitchen with a cooking fire. Living with him was his wife, and visiting were two sisters and two nephews. Day to day life was very pleasant at Philip's place. I stayed for five days, eating all meals there. We would eat in the kitchen, squatting around the cooking fire, and the food was just awesome. There was lots of rice, of course, along with vegetables from their garden (carrots, cucumbers, and numerous others that I couldn't identify). Typically the vegetables were boiled and served as a wonderfully tasty soup made from squeezed coconut shavings (santan) and spiced up with these deadly little red chili peppers that grow all over Flores. There was usually fried eggs, and lots of fish. Fish of a variety of smallish sizes, from finger-sized to maybe six inches long, invariably cooked whole. The little fish were actually quite tasty, the bones being small enough to just chew up. The larger ones took a little work (especially avoiding the guts), but were always tasty after having been grilled over coconut husks. Sometimes there were other treats, such as little triangular sweet cornmeal delights wrapped in banana leaves (though you don't eat the leaves). Things were always liberally spiced with peppers, onions, and garlic, ground up on a stone mortar and pestle. They fed me extremely well, and in between meals I snacked on fruits from the variety of fruit trees that could be found about the place. I read a lot sitting upstairs, and would occasionally go out and play ball with the "hello misters" that lived in the village. The nearby church was holding choir and dance sessions for the kids, and I could usually either hear drifting bits of song or music from the dance practices.
Indonesian children are world-class criers, and Philip's nephews were top of their class. They would usually enjoy about four or five good crying sessions each day -- this is probably because the older (around three or so) is still adjusting to having a baby brother around and doesn't like having his mother's attention divided. At any rate, I would occasionally take hikes to keep myself busy. One day I decided to tackle Garung Inerie, the huge perfect cone that looms over the whole area. Walking from Philip's house I took the road around the base to the point where Philip said I could find the trail. It was overgrown, but I eventually had a local farmer point out a way up through some wild meadows where I would intersect the trail. Trails in Indonesia are usually straight up the mountain, with no switchbacks. This one was just that -- straight up, measuring from the road just over 3700 feet of ascent to the peak at 7400 feet. The last bit was a loose layer talus over hard volcanic mud. Once your feet started sliding on the stuff it was like trying to walk on marbles. I eventually managed to scramble to the crater rim and to the peak, where someone had placed a big cross made of metal pipes. The crater had no lake, but sulfur deposits abounded and I was above the clouds looking out to the sea on one side and down past Langa and Bajawa on the other. The clouds eventually obscured everything, as they tend to do every afternoon on this peak, so I climbed down in a thin fog. It was a hell of a climb, and I was exhausted.
On another day I set out to explore Langa Hill, the crazy Dr. Seuss formations. It's an easy climb above Langa village, and they keep much of their cows and horses up on the hills to graze. The animals are usually staked in a particular area, so they don't just wander around aimlessly. Up on the hills there are three prominent crosses. Phillip told me that every Easter hundreds of villagers would have a procession up the mountain, with one lucky volunteer playing the role of Jesus. He would walk up the hill with a big cross strapped on his back with a crown of thorns, fake blood and all. The villagers are wailing the whole way, and they make it up to the hill for the sunrise and a service. The views from the hills are beautiful, and you can see down past Aimere to the sea. The hills get progressively higher and steeper, and I was climbing one after another. Eventually I started up one on a ridge about three feet wide, with steep drops of hundreds of feet on either side. Even though the drops were tussocky and covered with grass, I was overcome with vertigo and decided to leave that particular hill. The grass was slick with morning dew, and I didn't want to play the role of Jack.
Other excursions from Langa included a trip to a major market, where I bought the ikat from the Ende region. Phillip's neighbor owns one of the big Mitsubishi trucks that take people to the more inaccessible villages. We were visiting this neighbor after I had returned from Langa Hill, and relaxing while watching Enter the Ninja on video. The neighbor invited us along for one of the daily runs out to Aimere and smaller villages up the coast (the same coast I was admiring from on top of the hill). We went along, and I have to say those wooden slats they use for benches just aren't designed for tall people. I was wedged in, the truck was crowded, but I managed to see quite a bit of wonderful scenery along the way. In some of the smaller coastal villages we visited with some of Phillips friends and relatives, and enjoyed dinner with his aunt. The drive back was at night, and less crowded, punctuated only by when we pulled over, removed several of the slats from the back and loaded two methane-laden cows into the back of the truck for the trip back to Langa. The moon was full and the slopes of Inerie were clearly visible as we wound around the roads.
From my numerous talks with Philip, I also gathered how large of a role folklore plays in Ngada society. Even Philip, a relatively comopolitan guy for the locals, was still very superstitious. Every night he would throw salt (or onion) into the coals of the cooking fire where they would start crackling. This was to protect the house from evil spirits during the night. Caterwauling cats in heat were bad omens, and either salt or coals from the cooking fire must be thrown at them. His grandmother taught him that when drinking from a glass, always take the first drink with a finger under the base of the glass -- this will cancel any black magic that has been cast on the drink. When traveling long distances at night, on foot, he carries a nail like his grandmother taught him. This is so if you see a girl under the full moon under a banana tree, and you know it's a spirit, you must walk around without crossing the moonbeams and stick the nail into the shadow of the spirit's head. Otherwise the spirit will haunt you for a while -- this could be with either good or bad consequences, but it's generally not worth the risk. In fact the locals have a tale about another one of the villagers, quite wealthy and the owner of several bemos, a tale about how he obtained his wealth. They say he encountered one of these spirits (with no nail, presumably) and the spirit started visiting him in dreams. In the first encounter, the spirit asked if he wanted money. He said no. In the second dream encounter, the spirit asked if he wanted animals. He said no. In the third visit she asked if he wanted a key. He said yes. The next day he awoke to find the key, but he didn't know what to do with it. After a couple of weeks he had another dream where the spirit told him that only when there was a full moon and he was alone, he could take the key to the totem pole and unlock the carved ox head at the base of the pole and gold would come out. The catch was that if he did so he could never marry, or he would die. So the guy kept getting his gold out of the totem, and therefore could afford the bemos, but to this day he is really unhappy and unmarried. There are so many of these sort of beliefs, but all in all I'm not convinced that they are any more superstitions that people you would find in the rural Southern U.S.
My visit with Philipus and his family was relaxing, but I eventually moved along. I headed up to the north coast to the fishing village of Riung, perched in a muddy tidal flat on the coast near Seventeen Islands Marine Park (actually more like 24 islands), where there are fine beaches and snorkeling. The village is pretty basic and has been hit pretty hard by the lack of tourism. I stayed up in the tidal flats where fishermen live in homes up on stilts so that the shallow tide rolls in right under the houses. From my perch on the deck of my haunt, I could observe the flats and the pier heading out into the water. I saw mbou, large monitor lizards related to the Komodo dragons but smaller and more colorful, strolling across the flats. One morning I saw a troupe of monkeys tentatively exploring and approaching the houses. They were no doubt trying to swipe food, but someone scared them off. One day I went on a very hot hike in the surrounding hills, waiting on more tourists to show up so I could share the cost of chartering a snorkel boat. Eventually I went snorkeling after a couple of Canadians showed up and we joined forces, and there was abundant coral life throughout the islands. We visited a fruit bat colony on another island (where there also lives a hermit monk who plants trees in his own reforestation project) and had lunch on a white sand beach on another small island. Later that night I had dinner with the guide's family at his house and had another session with arak. While staying in Riung, I fell into the habit of walking out to the end of the pier to watch the sunsets. The boats are very simple affairs here, long slender jobs with bamboo outriggers on either side -- that's if you are relatively well off, a net fisherman. Many fisherman just have simple dugout canoes with a single outrigger from within which they ply their trade. I had made friends, using broken English and Indonesian, with one of the local fisherman. Abdurachman invited me to go fishing with him; I was assuming this would be night fishing, since that's when most of the other boats headed out, but since the moon was full this was no longer considered a good time for night fishing. Instead we headed out one morning in his tiny dugout canoe (along with his daughter of eight or nine years) for some simple hook and line fishing by the first island. Literally just a spool of line, using my hands, we bottom fished for several hours until the tide started coming in. Abdurachman would paddle around (and the canoe floated fine, despite my reservations) and would eventually ease up to a spot using landmarks on the island and say "Yeeeesssss..." and I would drop the line. I caught about five smallish fish (in that part of the islands they don't get very big), which they seemed to think was an excellent job. Local fisherman were amazed and delighted when they cruised by in their boats and saw a huge westerner hunched over a fishing line in a boat, earnestly trying to coax fish to the surface. I gave the fish to the locals once we returned. Despite the limited nature of the endeavor, it was very satisfying.
After Riung I had a very long day of bus rides, back to Bajawa and on to Ruteng, starting at around six in the morning and arriving around eleven at night (four hour wait in Bajawa). I didn't stay long in Ruteng, but did take a bemo out to a local village where from a hilltop vantage point you can see the spider fields, which are rice paddies arranged in a radial shape that makes them look like big spider webs. Each segment of the fields is passed down from generation to generation; it truly is a striking site, looking down over the valley of fields with mountains behind. And on from Riung I went to Labuan Bajo on the west coast. A larger fishing village on a large bay with maybe fifty fishing boats and periodic ferries, the place is not all that big but it seemed relatively luxurious compared to my other stops in Flores. Tourists are more frequent here since it is the main entry point from the boats that come from further west, on Komodo tours and scuba trips. I stayed in a bungalow up on a hill, overlooking the bay and sunsets.
While here I walked out to Batu Cermin, a network of limestone escarpments and caves a few miles away from the town. It is a big limestone ridge formation that rises up from the ground and is split periodically through its width. In these splits are wonderful cliffs and caves, encrusted with banyan trees. I clambored through a few of the caves and saw some impressive stalagmite and stalagtite formations, along with a couple of healthy bat colonies. It reminded me a lot of some of the caves in northern Alabama, which isn't surprising considering the limestone. I spent several hours just stomping around in the bush and exploring the area.
Afterwards I headed out to the nearby tiny island of Soreya where Gardena, my place of residence, had some additional bungalows and a restaurant. There was nobody else on the island except for the few hanging out in the bungalows. We could snorkel right off of the white sand beach into the bay, where there were amazing coral formations and reef life, including turtles, black tip sharks, and much to my delight, cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are an extremely intelligent cephalopod, relative of the squid and octopus. They float around, over a foot long, sort of looking like a big fat squid, but with highly intelligent looking eyes. They unfurl their tentacles into coral, foraging for tidbits, and exhibit rapid color changes whenever something startles them or they drift into a new environment. When I saw them there was a group of three, two of which seemed to be courting one another. Diving down with them, they would face you and examine you thoughtfully while exhibiting an astonishing display of color changes. They can move backwards using their skirt-like fin, forwards, sideways, and when they want to can be extremely swift. Wonderful to see them. If you are ever walking along the beach and see things that look like emery boards, they are probably cuttlefish bones and can also be seen in canary cages for beak sharpening. While on the island I also met a crazy bloke from Australia who had bought one of the small local fishing boats (not a dugout canoe, but larger -- still simple, though, with two bamboo outriggers) and retrofitted it. He was sailing around the area, spearfishing and generally being a survivalist. We sat around the campfire swapping tales a couple of nights, and for a while I was considering sailing over to Lombok with him. The trip would nominally have taken two weeks, so I eventually decided not to since I wanted to bag Garung Rinjani on Lombok and did not want to end up being late for my rendezvous with Susan in Bali. It would have been fun, though, hopping from beach to beach, island to island, fishing and visiting the fishing villages.
While on the island I met a British couple who were interested in diving in the area. When we returned to Labuan Bajo we signed up for a dive trip over towards Komodo. A two tank dive, the first was off a rock called Batu Balong where you have to dive at slack tide, otherwise the currents can be too swift. An astonishing dive with amazing visibility, there was a reef slope on one side and deeper open water on the other. I spotted five black tip sharks, a couple of moray eels, and a beautiful large lion fish. The next dive was a drift dive over the more shallow and less steep reefs next to Tatawa Besar. Once again, the health and diversity of the reef life in this area was amazing, and I spotted two more morays, two more lionfish, some queen triggers, a scorpion fish, and of course many anemones and clown fish. As usual, I was a bit of an air pig.
So after some fine meals back in Labuan Bajo, I signed up for a four day boat tour to Lombok. Along the way I was set to visit both Rinca and Komodo, home of the dragons. The next day I was off, cruising the Komodo Sea.
Random hah: Derren, ala the British couple I went diving with, had an amusing tale to tell about a visit he once made with some mates in the Southeastern U.S. You have to imagine the accents, here, and perhaps it's only funny if you have lived in Alabama. But for some obscure reason (a friend had antique business up in Georgia) they were passing through Montgomery, AL, after a stint down at Panama City Beach. Without fail, locals always expressed astonishment and amazement at Derren's accent, like that of Hugh Grant. So at a convenience store in Montgomery, the clerk's jaw dropped at his accent as she exclaimed "Where are you frum?" He said jauntily "Well, I'm from England, down here for a bit of vacation." To this she exclaimed "In MUNTGUMRY???? You should FAHR yer travel agent!"
Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Another distressing chapter in the Almanac. In Flores you have exactly one choice for beer: Bintang pilsner in a large bottle. It's not too bad, especially when you have no other choice, but I fear my penchant for variety in beer is suffering mightily.
Backpack acquiring character: one healthy dose of fish gut juice, one bit of vomit from a sick passenger, one helping of hog sweat, and copius dirt and dust.
Lament: While on the dive boat I read a book by Douglas Adams called Last Chance to See... where he describes several expeditions with a naturalist on a mission to spot several endangered animals around the world. It's a great read, full of the typical wry wit and sarcasm that you are no doubt familiar with if you have read The Hitchiker's Guide or Dirk Gently books. About a week later I discovered that Douglas Adams recently died of a heart attack while working out in a gym at the age of 47. His books made a huge impression on me when I was younger, and he will be missed. So long, and thanks for all the books.
Till next time, when I will have tales to tell of Komodo, Lombok, and Bali,