Hobbits, Dragons, and Manta Rays - Part 2

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September 21st 2010
Published: October 5th 2010
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I left Labuan Bajo and headed east out to Bajawa. After the ferry ride from hell I opted to pay the extra $7 and get a seat on a shuttle bus instead of the public option. I must be getting old. Although the road is pretty well paved, it still takes a while to get around Flores. The topography of the island is like a bunched up blanket with steep ridges and valleys going every which way with the odd volcano popping its head up here and there. The island (as much as I have seen) is gorgeous lush rainforest. Some of the valleys are so steep that historical contact between groups was incredibly limited. There are 6 separate languages within Flores and as many as 30 dialects.

There are tribal stories from both Flores and Sumatra that tell tiny hairy people running around with their ancestors. Back in 2003 a new species of humanoid was discovered. The existence of Homo Floresiensis, the hobbit man, is still disputed by many anthropologists but evidence continues to mount. This was a species that existed between 90,000 and 12,000 years ago. They stood just 3 feet tall and have been presented as either homo sapien dwarfs or a separate branch on the evolutionary tree that was subject to island dwarfism. Isolated environments can do crazy things to physiology. 12,000 years ago Flores was inhabited by miniature elephants, giant rats, dragons and other large lizard species. It is yet to be determined if the Flores hobbit was running around hunting rats as big as dogs.

The main draw around Bajawa are the traditional villages of the Ngada people. Although most of the area is now Christian, the Ngada culture of old still inhabits the lives of these people. Phallic poles and corresponding feminine houses are the focal point in most villages, the number of each decided by the number of different clans living in each village. The Ngada are matrilocal and matrilineal meaning after marriage, the husband moves in with the wife's family; lineage and property are passed down through the wife's side of the family. Many of the villages have moved to more modern cinderblock and corrugated metal construction, a few remain only bamboo and thatch and are built by hand. These are incredibly expensive projects, not only because the boards are shaped by machete and joined without nails, but because during construction, the workers are fed only rice and meat. This means buffalo and pig slaughter for 2 months. Each house has the skulls and jaw bones of each animal sacrificed during construction displayed prominently. Some houses had 12 buffalo and 35 pigs. Thats a lot of meat. The women of the village also spend a lot of time weaving, not only for sale to tourists but also for the sarongs people wear day to day. Ikat designs are specific to each region and village.
The villages I toured were in a deep valley, 1000-2000 feet lower than Bajawa (at a brisk 3500ft elevation). Lush knife-edged ridges cascading to the sea in the shadow of an 8000ft volcano. Macadamia nut trees, corn and cocoa and coffee and any other fruit you can imagine. Ridiculously scenic. We finished the day at a hotspring in the bottom of a canyon.

I spent most of the next day on (or waiting for) a public bus. Legs crammed against the seat designed for little Indonesians; feet up on a bag of rice trying not to kick the rooster under the seat in front of me. I finally made it to Ende, a port in the southern central part of Flores. The next day was spent on logistics. The Lonely Planet gives much praise to the knowledge and helpfulness of the staff in my hotel, but since I had trouble even finding someone working, locating the helpful English speaking staff was impossible. After a long trip around a small town I couldn't find a motorbike for rent. I did manage to get a ticket on the 2x monthly Pelni ship, a large passenger ferry with cabins and beds sure to make the 20-24 hour ride a little more comfortable. The shitty weekly ferry might have been too much for me. Since ferries only leave for Timor 6 times a month, I was stuck for a few days.

With no motorbike I was forced to ride with an ojek (motorbike taxi) to the mountains. "I need to go get your helmet" he yelled back to me as he ran a red light, weaved around a truck, and slammed on the brakes to avoid another truck. I was in agreement. We rode up a stunningly beautiful canyon; a river winding deeply, carving its way against limestone cliffs, jungle trees clinging to any available surface. The village of Moni sits beneath the volcano Mt Kelimutu, It is an old volcano, long ago losing its conical shape to erosion and eruption. Forests cover the slopes and outer crater. Inside the crater sit 3 lakes, all different colors that change randomly and without reason. The brown, opaque turquoise, and forest green lakes were red, blue and blue 5 years ago. 20 years ago they were red, blue and white. 2 of the lakes, brown and turquoise, whose colors are starkly different, are separated by only a narrow rock wall. Minerals are the reason for the color of the water but no one can explain why or when they change color.

Other than the volcano, there is little to do in Moni (pop. 150). Ende is not much better, with internet but no other tourists. The nosy (friendly?) nature of Indonesians gets pretty annoying after a while. Children stare. Adults stare. The elderly stare. "Hello mister Where are you going?" is yelled at you relentlessly from near and far. The same phrase directed at me 8 times during a 1 kilometer walk down the street. Im ready to get back to the beach. Too much sightseeing is getting to me


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