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Published: November 12th 2008
I could have filled a suitcase with all what I failed to pack: a sweater, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, razor and lotion, a swimsuit, sunscreen, translation dictionary and travel diary whose pages I could fill with all the sidetrips I forfeited either for lack of time or money; to hot springs, buffet dinners, boat dives, guided day trips, to distant hilltop villages where old women weave ikat and chew beetel nut, to the undeveloped north coast around Riung, to visit the whale hunting peoples east of Larantuka, to see old remains of the Portuguese missions. I tuck my unwielding tangle of hair inside a borrowed baseball cap and ride the bus westward mumbling about the price hikes for foreigners in these parts. The road twists and turns, trucks and motorbikes squeeze by and detour the many construction zones through a country where Sunday stretches for weeks at a time. Midday the bus passes through a string of quaint hamlets nestled in glens along the coast before refueling in Ende, the largest town on the island, population 80,000 and with a curious bit of fame. In the early 1930s when Indonesia remained under Dutch control, the first Nationalist party was formed, headed by
Soekarno, who soon found himself exiled to remote Ende. The road follows precariously close beside the coast, a long sweep of black sand beach stretches towards the hills of Ngada.
Another volcano, Gunung Ebulobo towering above the village of Boawae
, rears its perfect cone as the road climbs the lush upland Bajawa plateau. How many volcanoes have I seen on this journey? Five distinct regional languages each expressing its own culture survive on Flores, less than 700km east-west, its peoples; the Manggarai, the Ngada, the Ende and Lio, the Sikkanese and the Lamalohot persist as a localized lot bound in by their mountainous surroundings. In fact I spoke to more young locals who’d been or were headed to Java or Bali for education or to work than could not tell me a thing about the other cultures in Flores apart from what I might gleam off a tourist brocure. Bajawa
appears from a distance mistakenly charming spread across a valley below the highway. All but two guesthouses are undergoing repairs or additions, and the other two are in dire need of refurbishment, easily mistaken for the back lot of a car wrecker. I discover Sepp and Natalya lounging at
Edelweiss and join them for dinner across the street in a tin-roofed wood bungalow above whose entrance hangs a glittery Merry Christmas banner. We drink too many Bintang and snack on krupuk with guacamole. The tables fill with foreign backpackers and local guides. Sepp’s love of alcohol blooms a red blush. He entertains his friend and I commenting a little too loudly about the other customers and when most of them have finished and left Sepp takes hold of the microphone and amuses everyone with an impossibly slow karaoke love ballad. His driver offers us each sips of a potent Arak. We form a single large table, Sepp, Natalya, myself, the guides and two of their customers, a pair of young Swiss women both dressed in black, both pale, stone cold faces, miserable looking in fact, accepting like the rest of us short glasses of arak but insufficient to induce any show of life. Sepp feels no shame ridiculing them. He’ll forget come morning. Sepp has outed himself. A guide next to him responds all too eagerly, unaware the charm of playing it a little coy. Sepp’s driver from Moni, the eldest among the guides, wearing a morose expression most
of the evening complains on yet another topic prompting Sepp to his feet, “What are you so proud of? You have nothing.” Sepp’s had enough of his cool demeanour. The man, Sepp explained to me, had lived illegally for three years in Amsterdam with a British girl whom he’d met while working in Bali. He’d seen how the other half live and returned to his small island with a new fashion sense but had lost contact with his people and remained bitter.
I’m ready to give up. I wander the market’s side streets asking groups of young men and youths hanging out by the curb on their bikes, “Apa ada di sini orang yang mau menjewakan motor?” Those who are willing ask twice what’s reasonable. A shy guy on the edge of the crowd speaks in English, “you can use my bike.” His small face hidden under curls and a baseball cap’s dark rim looks almost as though it’s shaking with fear. All eyes in the market turn toward the bule as he examines the bike’s license and registration, arranges when and where to return the bike, slips on the helmet and starts the engine with a calm quick
kick and slight rev on the accelerator. It’s a rush to be back on a bike, to feel a sense of independence, equality really, free of the whims and schedules of public transport. Langa
lies a few miles down the road, a mix of traditional and modern, wood homes of a set design, satelite dishes poke from behind, pairs of ngadhu and bhaga stand in a large central open space, their wooden supports carved with animals and simple geometric patterns. Ngadhu, parasole-like, paired with bhaga, miniature thatched huts, symbolise male and female ancestors who lie in rest beneath tombstones a few fet from the children’s play area. A group of boys greet me and follow me through the village. They invite me inside their home, their mother and father watching from an open door. I am served a cup of coffee and chat with a group of men seated around a computer on which the father displays an autocad front perspective of a home he’s designed for the village. A side road slips between a small wooded strip and enters a quiet traditional village through an unceremonious path between tribal rowhouses. Bela
exudes an old western’s charm. In a
broad quadrangle stand a few pairs of ngadhu and bhaga, an orange-red pool of coffee beans dries in the sun, a dog sleeps in perfect profile, and the villagers watch stoically from the shade of verandahs, everything bathed sepia below a wrinkled and treeless hillside. I encounter the ponytailed young guide from the night before escorting a young woman from Maluku whose somewhat misguided campaign, in an effort to improve tourism through the clever means of subverting government advisories, informs an already enlightened segment of the population about travel in Indonesia. A third visitor to Bela, a handsome backpacker from Zaragossa, introduces himself, Jorge. We both comment on the tactless efforts of the pioneering young Malukunese defacing a perfectly uncommercial façade of a traditional home with her self styled stickers, better applied to surf boards in Bali, blue print on a yellow background <>.
Having spent more than a requisite ten minutes admiring the atmosphere and traveling without a guide to explain something strange and incoherent about the local customs, a fragment of something mystical only to be forgotten eventually if not by next day, until years later chancing upon a magazine cover in
Lingaa doctor’s office, smiling to a sick stranger, I’ve been there. Been there, done that, the checklist of island getaways and tropical adventures of the priviledged few. Jorge is different. I don’t bother to ask how he’s earned his money; perhaps I don’t want to discredit the image I’ve painted of him. Probably he quit his IT job and still earns enough operating a website. He’s thirty-four and already fifteen months in Indonesia following three months in Kyoto with a plain-faced hardworking girlfriend. He proposes we ride together to Bena, the largest traditional village in the highlands.
He rides ahead, helmet swinging from his elbow, sun bronzing his skin and bleaching his thick curls. He pulls up alongside a family tending to their coffee plantation, a father with a pony tail and bushy lambchops bends the boughs and plucks the beans, a baby boy clings to his mother, and three young men smile, engaged with Jorge’s easy charm. He’s pretty fluent and keeps the conversation going while producing an oversized camera from his rucksack and snapping close-ups. In Bena I follow my companion to a group of villagers repairing a thatched roof. Nextdoor three young men huddle in a cirlce slaughtering a pig and preparing stew. Women relax on the porch tending to the younger children, the older women, smiles, bright red lips and gnarly teeth, chew and spit beetel nut. I’m offered a wrapped leaf with ground beetel nut and lime powder. It tastes bitter and produces a dizzy stone and profuse sweating. Jorge clambers onto the roof to take photos of the men, a regular Che Guevera on holiday.
The road from Bena to Wono loops through the forested hillsides, villages shrouded in low cloud, the wind catches a sulfurous scent of hotsprings. At a busy crossroads, bemos rattle, halt, alight and load, a crowd of young men play billiards in a dark hall, Jorge and I enter a colourful warung, and order each a bowl of soto ayam. In a ghostly haze two thatched roofs peak above shrubs near the roadside marking the humble entrance to Wono. A young pregnant mother invites us inside her home where we’re asked to sit in the main room, a bamboo floor raised on stilts. It is dark and quiet and simple, a single yellow bulb hangs above a low table covered in notebooks. Her sister asleep on a mat in the corner is studying tourism. A thick fog rolls across the maidan, spirals in a narrow track between two houses where a father grasps a stick pounding coffee beans in a hollowed tree trunk, and lingers next to a village elder picking through a carpet of coffee beans. He waves me over and has me sign the registry. When I produce a 20,000Rp note and ask for change, he replies immediately in practiced English, ‘No change.’ Strange because three foreigners had just come through each donating a 10,000Rp note. I don’t argue. Five or ten thousand rupiah will go a lot further in his pocket, Jorge reminds me, practice humility. Still I mumble to myself an irreconcilable irritation. My mood lightens with a volleyball match against a few of the more competitive youngsters.
The Ikat man makes his evening rounds, wandering the strip of guethoues and restaurants with a stack of cotton weaves slung over his shoulder, grinning, winking to tourists. I dine alone in an otherwise unpatroned establishment feigning interest in the lives of two young servers keen to practice English. They’ll soon head to Malang and take up a couple years of university studies in tourism. They wrap shawl-like across their shoulders the long patterned sarongs and parade the dining amusing each other, fooling the Ikat man that their patron is interested. I ask about motifs but not one of them, neither the salesman nor the girls keen to study tourism can shed a light on their island’s most prolific craft.
I’m waiting at the crossroads outside Bajawa in the late morning shade of a warung not five minutes when a semi pulls, a clean white cab, a bed fitted with wood posts and benches painted lime and lemon from which a handful of young men scramble out for a pee break. The driver’s eyes meet mine, he smiles as he passes into the warung for a pack of smokes. He’s broad, a stocky upper body like a wheelchair sprinter. He asks if I want a lift, quotes 25,000Rp to Ruteng, a deal even for locals. The woodbench is hard. Banana bunches are rearranged to make space, a cramped nest between boards and old women hunched over tense and anxious. The driver pulls off to the shoulder in a small town, cars and mini buses parked bumper to bumper, a row of warung filled with the relaxing dim of satiated travelers. The driver and a few other young men try chatting with me, laughing with each other. His skin is dark and smooth, his lips full, hair clipped short, he looks to be African apart from his light brown eyes and a wide flat nose distinctly Indonesian. His name is Astiti and his grins, his goofy smiles, his long gaze communicate a deeper interest than cultural exchange. Do I want to go to Lembor - 50km past Ruteng - same price? He invites me to sit up front in the cab. After the third or fourth time, I agree to travel to Lembor, though it’s not indicated in the guidebook’s map I’m assured that it’s on the way to Labuangbajo and that there’s accomodation available. The passenger seat is comfortable and affords uninterrupted views over the valleys and peaks and villages, the rolling clouds and lush forests and rice paddies. I’m watching the landscape and steeling glances of the driver’s thick muscles, imagining him under my hands in a hotel room surrounded by contorted shadows, the outside world receding. He talks with his older friend sitting between us and I make out a fragmented story, or perhaps I imagine one, that his friend is cautioning him, advising him on how to treat the situation, to be wary of police and how to explain why he’s sharing a room with a bule. Late afternoon across a sweeping bowl of rice paddies, beams of sunlight like prongs of a divine rake pierce through the clouds gathered at the peak of a broad sloping volcano. I’m let off next to the pasar. The driver disappears into the stalls, his buddy accepts my fare and using simple gestures instructs where to find the hotel. Will he come to the hotel in the evening? Sure, he must first return home, I think to myself. I decide against the hotel and opt for a less pristine room in a losmen tucked down a countrylane further from the drone of passing vehicles. The sun lowers behind the volcano, along the horizon a series of mounds and hills appear pink and violet at day’s end. I bathe in a canal running across the frontyard of the guesthouse and under darkness find my way to a roadside eatery and order ayam goreng washed down with a mistaken non-alcoholic can of malt beer.
I’m up before the sun climbing a scrubby hillside north of town admiring the dawn glow, a sweep of coloured light, a soft magenta grows deep orange before the rim of a sizzling star stirs above the mountain range. Below, the tin roofs of the market, squares and diamonds of silver glitter like small fish drying in the sun. A single bemo roams the streets and blazons its progress with techno music. A finch family twitters nearby. A pair of mongrel pups scampers and one yowls on the far edge of the hill. I spy a cat hiding in the tall grass. The young men of Lembor return to their posts, loitering, smoking on the roadside, and watch the traffic humm past. I wander the perimeter of the market and the main roads stopping to inquire if anybody might be interested to rent their motorbike for the morning. I explain where I’m staying, where I want to go, how long I’ll be but none are trusting. They offer their services as ojek but I don’t want to be taxied around. Defeated, I return to the losmen, pack my bag and make my way to the gravel yard where a handful of passengers and a pile of belongings await the next ride to Labuanbajo. A thick boned young man asks me the usual line of questions but displays a skill for English. His name is Dimas, he is Muslim and his family runs the bus terminal eatery. I recount to him my search for a motorbike, conclude with a shrug and ask when’s the next bus. “Take my bike,” he says. He is sad for me that I’m far from friends and family during Lebaran. I gape at him, stunned, examining his face. “Just put some gas in it.”
The bike is heavy and requires a strong arm to manoeuvre the curves. I return west into the mountains where the previous day I’d glimpsed curious villages clinging to the cliffsides. A dirttrack leads perpendicular off a bend in the highway and bumps along a row of simple dwellings. Old men in kopyahs and mothers supporting babies on their hips wave from dirt yards behind low hedges. I’m told the track slopes down to the rumah adhat. A group of young boys gathers and races after me down the hill. Several men hear the children and I laughing in the yard and wave from an open window in the rumah adhat, gesturing for me to enter. Inside my eyes adjust to the darkness. I’m lead to a circle of cushions in a patch of light near the window. The cushions are beautiful, woven from thin strips of bamboo, the odd black strip creates an eye catching geometric motif. I sit with the men and answer their questions as best I can but answer more often than not with a smile and shake my head. My language skills do not allow any real exchange and we sit smiling at one another. I envy Jorge in this moment and wish I could ask my questions and learn more about this community. Through the window I watch as half the village descends the dirt track, mothers, daughters, brothers, young and middle-aged are soon gathered inside. I feel like a messenger, a prophet but I can communicate nothing. When asked why I’ve come to their village, I show them my sketchbook and explain I was looking for something to sketch. I feel ridiculous surrounded by these smiling faces like a thirty-year-old baby. Returning up the hill I wave good-bye. What a strange village, no shops, no cars, a dozen homes but so many inhabitants. How do they earn a living? What do they grow? I cruise back down into the midday heat of Lembor feeling none the wiser.
Something Fishy on the Island
A muscled man, middle-aged, a coarse looking muzzle offset by kind eyes slips off his shirt, removes a few planks and hunches below deck twisting a crank, sputtering the engine to life, his back muscles flexed, his biceps, traps stir life between my legs. We are five passengers, a young couple from Britain, and a husband and wife from Oakland. She talks without pause for breath, fighting above the engine’s roar, about books, writers, her being in between job at the moment. The captain is seated near the stern, his dark bicep curls as he brings a cigarette to his mouth. A young woman, an employee on the island, sleeps in a curled ball behind him. An hour out from Labuanbajo, on the edge of Komodo National Park we approach Pulau Kanawa, the engine slows as a sandy sea bottom appears puzzled with dark mounds of coral and wriggling weeds. The engine cuts, we coast into the jetty where a freshly painted dive shop, white with green trim, stands proudly facing across to the other wee islands. A pair of cormorants leaps from their perch and wings across the shore. Spied between gaps in the wood planks, in the cool shade of the dock and beneath the boats’ hulls a large school of trevally swirl and ravel in a slow pattern like an Escher print. Below the school and circling around its edges, several yellow fin grouper lurk, darting occasionally, sending the trevally into a rapid flutter; the surface of the water erupts with the sudden drumming of a thousand little fins.
Among a loose grove of low prickly trees, their hard black nuts covering the earth like a midday shadow, two rows of indian-red bungalows gaze across the beach. A path marked with clamshells leads to the cabins where I’m shown to #5, unpack and air out my rucksack before investigating a hammock strung nearby and open my book. Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth & Pouring Rain is narrated by a clever monkey tapping away at a typewriter, who through the aid of Hanuman and Ganesh must fulfill a wager struck between his protective gods and Yama, King of the Underworld. Each evening for two hours a maidan in a non-descript neighbourhood somewhere in Delhi crowds with young and old eager to hear the epic tales rumoured to be those of a monkey recounting the fierce battles and perilous journeys of his previous human life. Late afternoon a chartered boat arrives, a Hungarian tour group straggles up the pier, pale, pudgy middle-agers in swimsuits and t-shirts bought on previous holiday packages. I order dinner late to avoid the Hungarians by which time all three cases of beer have been consumed. They leave early next morning returning the island to its sweltering slumber. Donning mask and snorkel I paddle about the coral, breath slow and magnified like Darth Vader. Within hand’s reach angelfishes, parrotfishes, surgeonfishes and butterfly fishes, lined, banded, dotted, in blue and gold, black and silver, incredible patterns, zig and zag in the reef’s crags among dancing weeds and waving soft corals. Groupers, snappers and wrasse fishes munch contentedly roaming deeper sheet corals. Giant clams open-lipped reveal black whole doorways, conjuring images of a galaxy seen at warp speed aboard the starship enterprise. A curious school of needlefish, razor-toothed, simultaneously blue and silver drifts just below the surface, circling me. The afternoon grows unbearable, cicadas screech, my mind empties.
Four days and four nights, a pink sunrise, a suffocating midday heat followed by thunderstorms booming their way dragged across the western-most ridges of Flores as though netted and drawn by the sun. Sheets of grey fall over Rincang Island, a breeze grows, stirs crisp leaves and lets fly tired grains of sand, scatters blackflies, flings laundry off its line, tosses white caps beyond the reef. The air settles, the trees still, laundry is fetched and rehung, the sun slinks beyond Komodo where a dark strip of purple light gathers below the clouds. The firmament eases into a cool black studded with constellations in formations skewed to a northerner’s perspective, Orion poised in profile.
In the dining hut the wee cats meow and beg for fish
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