Mister Hello Salamat Datang di Flores

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October 1st 2008
Published: October 29th 2008
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Motorbike - Train - Bus - Ferry - Bus - Motorbike - Plane - Plane - Motorbike - Bemo - Foot - Sigh

It proved impossible even months in advance to secure a flight to Bali the first weekend of the long awaited Lebaran holidays. At ten in the evening, less than an hour after finishing work, I arrived at Setasiun Gubeng, crowds milling, dark and rusting locomotives screeching to a halt, unloading dazed and excited passengers emptying into the city, reloading with families and suitcases bound for villages across East and Central Java, some traveling further to Jakarta or several days to reach Sumatra, where in a tradition known fondly in Indonesia as mudik, Muslims gather with their families to celebrate the end of Ramadhan, to feast and to ask one another forgiveness for their sins. The executive car follows in the rear, air-conditioned like a supermarket’s frozen food aisle, armrests, and footrests and at two in the morning, bundled inside my sleeping bag, minutes from reaching a neck-straining deeper state of unconsciousness, “Sahur! Sahur!” an attendant serves the midnight meal. At daybreak the landscape returns tinted dark blue, sfumato rendered rice fields trimmed with palm and wild shrubs motionless beneath an overcast sky. A sick, empty feeling rolls through my stomach. At twilight barefoot farmers carry on their endless toil steering buffalo through the muck, plowing new furrows. A terribly simple life lays the other side of the proverbial track, with so few surprises, so little diversion, satiated on a monotonous diet. An existence that stretches at most a hundred miles before it blurs, becomes a world known only through headlines or the accounts of neighbours’ relatives, and still further, the world meets a medieval precipice, the likes of Amrika and Europa known in fragmented flickering images. Small villages strung along the track, tiled roofs and white washed walls appear among the flora, passengers alight; the car slowly empties as it loops up the East coast.

Last stop, Bangyawangy, fewer than a half carload remain, mostly tourists, detrain quickly from the dozen cars, scramble across the tracks and locate an ageing coach parked out the front. All aboard it trundles down to the docks and queues among the organized columns of traffic, is guided by uniformed men waving orange batons to proceed along the jetty and enter a starboard side ramp of a small ferry. I watch in

aboard his Uncle's boat
disbelief and awe as we rock across the ramp squeezing inside the ship from a side entrance. It’s not dificult to imagine myself a statistic, page four, a side column, so many British, French, Indonesians and one Canadian drowned Saturday morning; in Indonesia, unsurprising and hardly worth reporting on travel conditions or safety procedures.

Bali lays a stone’s throw from East Java where mid crossing, below heaving crests of dancing paper cups and plastic flotsam stretches a thin blue line obliging our watches an hour ahead. It’s already nine o’clock. Clearing customs, the single lane ‘highway’ winds through towns coloured with well tended gardens and strange Hindu altars, disappears behind tired eyelids, the fatigue of a sleepless night overpowers the anxiety tightening in my chest. The Island of the Gods and of narrow roads and holiday traffic shall decide whether or not I make my flight. We pull into Terminal Udang at precisely twelve o’clock. You’re lucky, winks the Englishman across the aisle, a veteran of Indonesian travel who understands that an hour and a half late is actually early. 12:01pm, an ojek driver soon to be well-paid rips out of the car park with instructions to drive at break neck speed, weave on-coming traffic, short cut down alleys and where possible ignore traffic signals. I reach the Merpati Airlines domestic check-in counter forty minutes prior to take-off. A side note to pickpockets and budding terrorists, not once among the half dozen security gates, nor at the check-in counter was I asked to produce any I.D. The flight’s running late, behind a long queue of departures for destinations scattered across the archipeligo, announced over a loudspeaker in bilingual muffled snippets. The plane begins its descent over an arrid landscape, dropping out of the sky onto a tarmac amid grazing cattle and thatched farm huts. Strange though that we touch down as scheduled at half past three. The airport resembles a one room schoolhouse and I’m nearly through its doors when a guard spies my laminated book mark a flight attendant has handed me and that I’ve failed to read, transit. I’m quickly made aware that this is Kupang, West Timor. I’m led through the lobby past glass display cases of beautiful Ikat weaving, through a passenger lounge already queuing out the door and back onto the tarmac to reboard. A new group of short stocky stewarts arranged in the
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early morning along the tracks, East Java
same faded white and brownish-crimson uniforms distribute among the passengers the same snacks, cake and pounded sweet rice, and collect the rubbish quickly and as orderly as a military exercise. Across a shimmering sea, the eastern tail of Flores floats into view, a lush mountainous island, carpeted in late afternoon gilded palms.

A horde of eager tourist swindlers-cum-taxi drivers shout enthusuastically at the gates, are waved aside too easily with the word, ‘bemo?’ cheap local transport. The young driver and his gang of smooth dark young men keep me entertained with their childish antics, comparing mobile phones, sharing music uploads, and laughing at their buddy’s shockingly poor guitar skills, such that I miss my stop and do not alight until after dark on the return journey, creeping along with broken stuttering headlights, searching the roadside for Ankermi’s. A paved walk leads inside a cramped garden, past a dining hall to a row of neat bungalows, each lavishly decorated and with attached spic-and-span toilets and mandis. The price includes a dinner buffet prepared by the Swiss owner but is four times the price listed in the guidebook. In the coming days I shall learn to appreciate the Lonely Planet as a work of fiction, based loosely on a not so recent history. The owner is unwilling to offer any discount in view of my kitas, another reoccuring frustration in the coming days so although I earn a local salary, a quarter the earnings of a similar job in the Western World, I must pay the price for my white skin. I’m recommended to find Wodong Cottages, a half-mile down the beach. Stars twinkle in their infiniteness above a road lost in darkness. The sweet-talking sound of waves can be heard rolling across a shore. An occasional figure, a silhouette cast in headlights, appears lingering on the shoulder. When I ask one for directions, he answers in a feminine voice, and I proceed along the road convinced that these figures smoking by their front gates are prostituting themselves. By the dull light of a warung sits a group of young people, one of whom stands when I inquire the way to Wodong, “that’s my Uncle’s place, I’ll take you.” His name is Christophe, a twenty year-old studying tourism. I follow beside him, his step falls assuredly, leading down a concealed dirt track. I’m shown inside the grounds, to one of eight stilted bamboo bungalows, a simple box with a verandah out front, a gated mandi in back. Christophe’s friend Roy, a fellow student of tourism, darker and with thick curly hair joins us where I sit drinking a long awaited Bintang, practicing my limited Indonesian. Roy and I arrange a tour for the next day.

I wake later than usual, a sound sleep beneath a mosquito net woken by roosters pecking in the garden just beyond the verandah. I commit to a half hour of tai chi in a patch of shade along the beach. In the light of day I realize this is in fact tourist accomodation and not a dream, brocures and maps lie in stacks and hang in front the counter of a bar neglected to one corner of the open-air dining hall. Seashells of varying size and shape, white with pink or brown patterns decorate the table and the footpaths criss-crossing the garden. I am served local coffee, not so bold but curiously nutty, along with the inevitable backpacker’s banana pancake. Roy fetches me mid-morning, borrowing Christophe’s new bike, and we drive unhurriedly down the coast road to Nangahale, inhabited by Muslim fishermen who erected the village after an earthquake and tsunami destroyed their home on nearby Pulau Babi back in ’92. The Orang Bajo, as Roy refers to them, come from south-east Sulawesi originally, fisherfolk who resettle on deserted islands wherever the winds diperse them. Besides fishing, then men of Nangahale are skilled ship-builders, as well as manufacturers of salt. One woman, wearing a long flowery loose fitted dress, her hair set back in a bandana, stands beside a trough of steaming salt, impervious to the heat inside the shack, explains the simple process, how the salt is collected far from shore where the water’s cleaner, and how the salt is boiled, bagged, then taken to market. Roy’s and Christophe’s family will visit friends next week as they do each year among the Muslim village of Nangahale to join them for Lebaran.

Returning through Wodong village Roy suggests a stop at his home where his mother shows me how arak is produced. The distillery lies out the backyard in a cool patch of shade under a copse of slender palm trees. The palm oil when first collected from the tree appears in a white murky glue-like consistency, is boiled in a deep pot manufactured, Roy’s mother points out proudly, from the ashes of the fire, turns to vapour climbing a short chimney and cools, condenses, and travels a series of bamboo pipes fitted with filters, dripping eventually into a small bottle, a translucent light brown liquid with an aroma not unlike mosquito repellent. She manufactures three grades of palm wine, ranging from five to fifteen thousand rupiah per litre bottle. I’m offered a small taste, perhaps 50ml and requested to donate ten thousand rupiah. The bike key has slipped from Roy’s trouser pocket. He spends the next while searching frantically amid the palm trees and footpaths and after praying by his grandfather’s grave, Roy’s father unearths the shiny plastic crucifix keychain half hidden among dead leaves and twigs near the palm wine process’ bamboo pipes. Meanwhile Roy’s aunt is showcasing patterns of Ikat she will start weaving next week, designs with birds and flowers and tendrils. Ikat is produced in every region of Flores with the same simple tools; some villages producing more intricate motifs, others using artificial dies.

Into the hills above Maumere, views of the coastline and of nearby towering Gunung Egon, flitter through the trees, Roy and I climb toward the village of Watublapi. “Ah, it’s here,” he pulls off onto a dirt road and parks at the first house, “this is my teacher’s house.” We are invited inside, a clean simple front room with worn-in sofas and a low wood table. The teacher’s wife pulls out a stack of ikat, from small table covers to broad sarongs in striped reds and blues. I’m curious to learn about the process and am shown into the garden where the teacher points out the cotton tree, an indigo shrub of tiny leaves, and in the backyard’s vegetated slopes, a grove of mengkudu trees from whose strange bulbs are ground the pulp to produce a dark red die. In a locked shed the small woman reveals a series of pots full of stinking indigo die. She dips and wrings thick threads of cotton in varying consistencies of the foul liquid. We return to the front room and I barter over a couple pieces, willing to give her a good price now that I understand all the effort and appreciate the use of all natural ingredients.

Dawn. Long stretches of tropical beach pebbled with coneshells flecked with brown and white geometric patterns like

Minoan pottery shards, the history of an outrigger dragged across the sand, fishermen, two ants perched on the horizon, check their nets and traps. Beyond a stand of mangrove a lone figure wanders the shoreline jutting into the calm water searching for squid. A soft blaze of coral red appears over the hills and gazes upon its reflection silver at the edges. Small cottages of teetering planks and woven bamboo wake. An old man sits on his haunches contemplating the dawn, working his bowls. Ernio stands obscured in the shadows watching my approach, I’m carrying flip-flops and a handful of seashells. He is eighteen, tall, dark as night, slim, sweet faced, more beautiful than the morning. His younger brothers and sisters are awake, their games broadcasted from behind a wall of hibiscus, papaya and palm.

Christophe serves me a plate of fried cassava, a dry crispy chew, a taste like dry earth and scorching sun. His uncle arrives to fetch us. We climb aboard a thirty-foot long boat painted a crisp light blue, an orange taurpauline offers a sundial of shade. His uncle, a meaty man, thick limbs and a large head burrows below a hatch and starts the
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motor, a mind-numbing, bone-rattling beast, black and oily, sends us out to sea. Christophe points in this and that direction naming islands and villages. Two perfect planes of blue glass, a halo of cloud clings to the peak of Pulau Besar. A flying fish skims across the surface with the grace of a figure skater. I’d assumed such creatures were fiction. I have to laugh watching Christophe lure a hermit crab from its wee shell, holding it to his mouth, vibrating its cavern with comic sound waves, “lblblblblblbl.” But the day feels altogether unnoteworthy and I suffer an eery absence of longing. The moment is a mindless emptiness into which I am plunged. The motor cuts out, the anchor drops. Below an offshore reef rebuilds itself, like heaps of animal bones, the evidence of a tsunami’s wake, fish dance in and out of the sun’s tendrils, among the sucking and puckering plantlife. I snorkel over a dreamscape while Christophe and his cousin drop lines in the tide and his Uncle scrubs the hull. Sealice sting my skin, my legs pinken, my lungs squeeze in the depths and my eardrums squeel and pop. Something in me seeks isolation, wants to be
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left alone in perfect silence, wants a still mind, wants to escape its ageing imperfect body, its crooked spine, its aching muscles, ingrown toenails, furrowed brow, a dormant case of syphalus, thinning hair, a belly of an ego. The fish are beautiful, perfect, unknowing. The day reaches middle-age and singes the island where Christophe and I take siesta beneath a clump of prickly trees.

The landscape is stunning, fleeting images spied over shoulders, between tamarinds and palm trunks, when the road rounds a hillside teetering above a hundred metre drop, when a creek passes below a bridge, wider vistas emerge, slopes and valleys blooming with forests of white flowers, trees like giant cauwliflower. Half the passengers, the women and children and an elderly man, seem unappreciative of the idyllic countryside, their heads bowed between floded arms, hands clsping plastic sacks to mouths. A young boy’s banana puree slides off the plastic onto wet hands. A man in a baseball cap turns round to inspect the boy. With big brown eyes, helpless, glazed, he returns the man’s stern look, heroically, behaving older than his seven years, suppressing his tears, silencing his fear and anxiety.

Not far beyond Wolowaru, the
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island road loops like a shoelace strung taut through a valley of glimmering rice fields and curves sharply among the terraces planted by the good people of Moni. Four unimaginative guesthouses and a few cafes huddle near the pasar and the red tinroof church. A dozen backpackers arrive early afternoon to survey their options, and to fill the beds and drink from the coffee cups of the tourists who’ve come before them. The weather patterns change, prices inflate, but still the trail of tourists checks-in, checks-out. In the verdant slopes above Moni farmers prune their coffee orchards, old women sit on front porches, chew beetel nut, and watch the beans dry in the sun. Children, their voices erupting from back lanes, from tangled tree houses, interrupt their games with toys crafted from recycled rubbish, to shout at the passing bule, “hello Mister!” Brothers, sisters, cousins in dirty play clothes, Micky Mouse and Batman t-shirts, swarm the foreigner, curious why he’s alone, where he’s going and if can he speak their language. “Sedikit. Apa jalan ini ke Woloki?” In the next village he’s invited to play volleyball. A damp cloud hangs low across the bamboo huts. Older sisters cluster watching the young boys pass a deflated soccer ball with the foreign visitor. In Mboti, two rows of houses, painted light blue, faded yellow or rusty orange face one another across a green divide, planted with flowers and shrubs, climbing the hillside in even steps to a blue and white brick steeple. Agnes introduces herself, an ugly Betty with round spectacles, thick lenses and an over-eagerness to share her story. She’s dressed like a tourist, has just returned home to her village after working four years in Japan at a nickel plate factory. “Oh, where in Japan?” “Korea,” she replies, not the least confused.

Moni grows pleasantly cool in the evening. I join a couple from Holland, Sepp and Natalya and Stine and Kevin from Copenhagen for dinner across the street. Among the ever-present nasi ayam, nasi ikan, nasi telur, the menu contains a few surprises. Natalya orders the croquettes, the others order variations on spaghetti. The Danes are twenty-six and thirty, surviving their second month in Indonesia but barely; both suffer intermittent fevers and must spend half each day in bed. They are soon headed via a lengthy sailing to Kupang, to east Timor to renew their visas. Stine recounts their bad experience with mushrooms at Lake Toba, how their faces swelled and required antihistamines, a quick-thinking nurse’s solution. Another fellow at their guesthouse met with a worse reaction, and went into epileptic shock and had to be flown to Singapore. Sepp’s Indonesian is quick and easy, gesting with the young local men, the ojeks and touts seated at the other tables. He studied agriculture in Malang for two years and later worked in Jember. Back in Amsterdam he manages an organic farm employing folk who suffer psychological problems, providing them a meaningful opportunity and supplying the city’s upscale bistros with over-priced legumes. Natalya’s a towering six feet tall, beautiful without make-up, confident, confiding. She has spent the past few years dedicated to projects in Thailand, aiding community redevelopment. She was working in Phuket producing new pieces for her own line of jewellery, and employing a handful of locals to comb the beaches on that fateful Boxing Day, 2003. That morning she was driving her moped to the beach to check on her employees after hearing about what would later be known as the first wave. She was hit riding her bike and came to in a stranger’s house. She plays continuously with a bracelet made of snake bone wrapped round her left wrist, she is testing the gilded lock’s durability.

Sepp and I accept an invitation to a wedding party down the back lanes of Moni. A motorbike’s headlight reveals a smll patch of dirtroad snaking the edge of a slope, our shadows walk ahead of us leading to a speck of distant light. Sepp soon realizes and points out to me that our gang has arrived uninvited. We stand in a clump on the edge of a large tent. Two-dozen young men dance to music that in the West has been burried and forgotten. The men are dark and dressed in jeans and worn t-shirts, some of them sport afros, others have braided dreads. A pair of teenagers convulse and spring about in rhythm with a techno-remix. A familiar tune inspires a group to form two short columns and following the lead of a tall lanky man, they side-step like tribal hunters, forward and back, bending and rising, and lifting their arms as though in supplication to a harvest divinty. The bride and groom reappear by the stage, the most glum looking of happy couples I’ve ever witnessed and our gang files past shaking hands.

Poorly rendered digital images of Kelimutu’s coloured carter lakes adorn the region’s political campaign posters, feature on tourism brocures of Nusa Tenggara Timur and proliferate the island’s local advertising banners for this or that product wholley unrelated to the lakes and their ever-changing mineral composition. A sign posted near Inspiration Point requests that visitors behave quietly out of respect to the spiritual nature of the unearthly setting. Locals believe that the souls of their dead find their rest at these lakes, as have, incidentally, the bodies of a few tourists, their steps misplaced along the loose scree of the crater’s lip, they plunged into the thick bubbling soup never to be reclaimed. Locals have come to revere the mystical peaks for their tourism potential and do their darndest to separate backpackers from their money. In the last year transportation has doubled in price while entry now costs foreigners ten times more. When I complain of this to other travellers, their heads nodding in agreement, within earshot of a few local guides, one young man gives me an earful, uninterested to admit that from Sumatra to Java to Bali to Lombok, tourists are treated better and with regard to guide fees, car or motorbike rental, treks or boat charters, lodging, food, entry tickets, the young men of Flores overcharge considerably. “We don’t kiss ass like they do in Bali,” he tells me. On more than one occasion I’m told that Orang Flores are agressif. Late morning before the summit clouds over shafts of sunlight illuminate the diagonal sediments of black, brown and grey forming the steep crater wall. Two twenty-year olds follow a trail counterclockwise along the lip ahead of me displaying their bravery, hollering across the lakes at expectant echoes, launching stones, spilling down the slopes in a small avalanche finishing with a satisfying smack as it plunges into the opaque surface. They approach me, one removes his shirt and flexes, the other lifts his top and rubs his abs, he asks for a photograph. The mountaintop is ripe with chi. Families ascend to a viewing platform overlooking all three lakes, pose for pictures, talk endlessly, ask the foreign couple where they’re from and descend back down the steps. The third lake stands alone in a perfect bowl, forested, nestling below a ridge like a dragon’s thorny backside. Clouds swirl and eddy. Someone’s ipod sings ‘Forever Young’. Trails descend zigzagging the misty slopes below Kelimutu, farmhouses appear and disappear surrounded by coffee plantations, their boughs blossom with bright red beans.
A choir gathered on the church verandah welcomes the cool colours of evening with melodious hymns. I lounge in the guesthouse common area, reading, eavesdropping on a conversation in French. I ask the tall young woman from Les Ardeches to share dinner with me. I order spaghetti cheese. The trail of tourists has ebbed this afternoon leaving only a few of us dining at Bintang’s. She talks about her work as a biologist for a petroleum company and about her four years in French Polynesia spent drinking mostly and about her travels through Asia. We talk about this need to travel, to experience different lives only to end up living somewhere in between. She’s a very beautiful young woman and I can feel a strange tension wanting to assert itself.

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