Nusa Tenggara to Sulawesi

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July 30th 2012
Published: July 30th 2012
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Hurry through Sumbawa we did, but only because there was little to specifically hang around for. The countryside is mountainous, arid and pretty monotonous; there are no ‘sights’ as such. Contrary to rumour, it turned out that the people were perfectly welcoming, greeting us not with sticks and stones but smiles and “Selamats” (good morning, good day, etc…) Indeed, one bus driver took a particular shine to us and on changing buses he insisted on speaking to the subsequent driver to ensure that we paid local price. The only other tourists we saw in three days, while crossing the entire island, were two hard-core surfer dudes - apparently there are some serious “breaks” off the north coast.

Sape on Sumbawa’s east coast is a pleasant little port town with somewhat of a frontier feel to it, especially when you roll in after dark. There is just one straight road and this leads directly to the harbour. At day break the whole town seems to take a constitutional (pre-/post-prayer?) with the dock, its boardwalks and warungs packed with strollers and loiterers.

We managed to secure a couple of “berths” on the padded platform for the eight hour ferry crossing to predominantly Catholic Flores. Predictably, the fact that you had to pay extra for these counted for nothing and Ali awoke from a snooze to find a mother and child snuggled up next to her. Shortly thereafter I made a friend. A young chap came over to ask Ali if I was her husband and informed her that I was very handsome. Could he have his photo taken with me? Yes, of course he could. This he duly did half a dozen times on his mobile phone. Twenty minutes later and he was back. Could he please take a few more photos? Errr, sure… This time the posturing was far less formal and he kind of nuzzled into my neck; hmmm… Another twenty minutes and he tried his luck once more. For his final gambit, with camera poised, he gazed adoringly at me and pleaded “kiss me”: end of photo shoot. Actually, as strange as these events were they were later surpassed by an Imam (Islamic teacher!) who, a few weeks later, expressed similar feelings for me in a packed bemo.

On arrival in Labuanbajo, Flores, westerners were once again in evidence: mostly holiday makers who have flown in and are here to see dragons, either that or to dive. From the harbor you can take a day trip to the islands of Komodo or Rinca for ora (Komodo dragon) viewing. We opted for the latter as it has more dragons, some 1500 or so, and it is a markedly cheaper boat ride given its closer proximity to Labuanbajo.

We were hoping to see some sex (it’s the start of mating season) as the dragons are typically sedentary, being content to simply bask in the sun; kills are usually weeks apart. Lazy they may appear, but like crocs they are extremely cunning and can really shift (in a straight line) when they’re motivated; a careless unobservant tourist would fit the bill nicely.

Walking around the island the requisite guide carries a forked stick. This he uses to (hopefully) thwart lunges by the twelve feet long, 300lb, harbingers of death: a single bite is sufficient to kill a fully grown buffalo. Slowly; it may take the buffalo up to three weeks to finally die. Whether it is the bacteria in the dragon’s saliva or a venom that sees it off is still being debated, but once bitten the dragons constantly trail the wounded beast until it inevitably keels over. Deer or humans (there are two villages on Rinca) do not necessitate a wait and such a prey is polished off in a few minutes of feeding frenzy. A guide was bitten last month, but pulled through with heavy duty intra-venous antibiotics. Lone villagers tend to just disappear.

Apparently fully grown ora can swallow a goat whole, although there are no goats on Rinca (anymore?) and the practice of tethering a goat as bait has (thankfully) long since been discontinued so there was no chance of us confirming this. Fortunately for the young dragons the adults can’t climb - they are highly cannibalistic - and so the poor little blighters are forced to spend the first five years of their lives up a tree…

Obviously, given the lack of interest shown in us by the beasts we encountered, none of our party were menstrual or carrying a fish in their day packs (both are guaranteed to gain the dragons’ attention according to some old local we chatted to later in the day whilst ourselves devouring a couple of delicious barbequed fish) and so no forked stick was put to the test. Indeed, we weren’t to be treated to any lizard porn either…

On the way back we stopped off at a small deserted island for some snorkeling that was good, but in no way comparable with Pulau Weh and American Bill classed it as a “B grade" snorkel. American Bill is an academic working in China and his Chinese wife (32 years his junior) could in no way be described as having a “B grade" body…

The hundred-odd miles to Bajawa took ten hours by public bus: it is one seriously mountainous island, though much greener than Sumbawa; the roads are serpentine and regularly blocked with mini landslides, whilst the buses are dilapidated. Crammed into the bus with the passengers (far outnumbering seats), the sacks of rice and shallots (that make for additional aisle perches) were several noisy roosters and up on the roof with the majority of the luggage was a seriously miserable pig in a crate. The buses may lack such niceties as functioning seats but they are never without ‘the’ essential – a whopping bunch of multi-coloured plastic bags: Indonesians are not great in motor vehicles and, without fail, half the bus spends the journey with their heads in one of these bags, pausing occasionally to throw their full receptacle out of the window and start anew. Conversely, we’ve never seen an Indonesian being sea-sick…

We’d thought we might pause in Bajawa for a few days but the natural draw of an infant volcano bearing an orange-coloured lake within its caldera was scuppered – the lake disappears during dry season that it currently is. The nearby traditional Ngado villages of Bena et al. with their thatched circular, bure-type, housing didn’t appeal: photographs we’d seen suggested tourist additions rather than functioning lifestyles and American Bill (who did visit them) was later to describe them as very much a “B grade" attraction.

Lately we have been struck by just how polite Flores’ population is. A “thank you” (“terima kasih”) is always met with “you’re welcome” (“sama sama”) and then there is the etiquette of excusing yourself (“permissi”) and performing a ducking action when you pass someone who is stationary in a confined space; we would also excuse ourselves if we passed between two people talking, but someone just sitting… It reminds us of the Japanese and is rather endearing, if somewhat over-the-top.

Bajawa had little in the way of decent cheap accommodation and we ended up in a rather musty-smelling room at Anggred Guest House, the lorry drivers’ pit stop of choice. We whiled away a cloudy afternoon playing crib where Ali won eleven consecutive games (this was later stretched to an amazing 13 on the trot) and I then took my frustration out on the owners’ children by thrashing them at badminton. Periodically a shuttlecock would end up on the roof to which we naturally sent up a six year old to scramble across the steep rusty corrugated iron and retrieve them.

In recent months we had become rather partial to “Beng-Beng”. No, this is not some local genre of music or dance, neither is it a traditional foodstuff or deviant sexual practice; it is in fact a chocolate-covered caramel biscuit that we’d now bought all over Indonesia. They are always 1000Rp a pop; well, everywhere that is except in Bajawa. One woman tried to charge an astounded Ali 2000Rp a piece. She rapidly moved on to another shop where the little girl behind the counter asked for 1000. Ali said she’d like six please (they go so well with a last evening cup of ginger tea). At that moment mum appeared and stated that they were actually 1500. Cue a scowl as Ali patiently explained that they should be 1000, that they are always 1000; the woman wasn’t having any of it. In a fit of chocolate-deprived pique Ali lost both her cool and her tact and demanded “look, a thousand each, yes or no?” It was a Beng-Beng-less night… Peevishly shoddy shop-keeping!

Getting to Moni was painless: in our best Bahasa Indonesian we said 75,000, the bus driver countered with 100,000, we turned to walk away and he capitulated. Again the distance involved wasn’t great but the terrain and vehicle conspired to draw it out to seven hours. For the last two of these we climbed steadily through an ever thickening mist that eventually turned into a miserable chilly drizzle. On arrival it was raining and had been doing so for the previous two days.

We were here to see Gunung Kelimutu - a volcano with three craters, each bearing a different coloured lake. Two of these are in a constant state of flux, their colours changing with the seasons (wet/dry) that impact on the waters’ rates of mineral absorption. At their most impressive the lakes are burnt orange, chalky turquoise and black. In recent months the orange lake had passed through mocha to join its neighbour in a bizarre shade of blue, whilst the black lake was currently a deep olive green. However, the poor chemistry timing was the least of our concerns as no one had actually seen any lakes recently given the persistent low clouds and accompanying rain. Supposedly it is the middle of dry season, yet June had seen three weeks of rain.

Luckily, unlike most visitors, we had time on our hands and were able to hang-out at our guest house (Maria’s) until a clear day dawned. Maria (who really is Forrest Whittaker’s twin: very dark skinned, plump is being polite, constant smirk and the eye thing) and her husband were living in the hut next to ours and seemed to spend their days surveying their domain (and barking out commands) from comfy chairs on their veranda. They were extremely impressed at our intention to walk the 24km roundtrip to Kelimutu – apparently everyone takes an ojek up at least. So impressed indeed that dad confided in me the location of the local arak producer. Obviously we investigated this and duly purchased several beer bottles worth of the fiery, yellow-hued, clear spirit that was decanted from five gallon containers stored in a shed. It was good, maybe not initially but it certainly grew on you (simply fish out the fruit flies for whom its lure was too great). Subsequently, we saved our empty water bottles and prior to departure revisited to stock up with a few litres for future non-alcohol-friendly destinations ahead.

Anyway, hike up we did. It was a steady climb (made with remarkably clear heads) and with the aid of a short-cut through a forest and several tiny villages we reached the craters in little more than two hours. We saw no other walkers but were passed by plenty of incredulous motorcyclists once we hit the road. As you can see from the photographs, it was impressive (and would have been even more so with an orange lake) but we wouldn’t advocate a trip to Flores for the sole purpose; Rinjani is a far superior spectacle (though a serious bastard to climb).

One of Indonesia’s unsung highlights, particularly after a long bus journey when you’ve missed out on breakfast and lunch (or – more likely - you’ve succumb to an afternoon beer or two and know that you should really accompany them with some solids) are gorengan (battered) food stalls: a glass cabinet stacked high with crispy deliciousness stands before a mammoth sizzling wok in which a shovel-full of gorengan jostle in the vicious oil tempest. These sound unhealthy (ok, they are unhealthy), but at least the contents suggest otherwise: slabs of crisp yet soft-centred nutty tempe; tahu isi (hollowed tofu stuffed with glass noodles and slivers of vegetables – mentioned these before I feel); bakwan (moist gelatinous patties that are somewhat similar, but more delicate, than Japanese mochi and may contain shellfish or vegetables); ubi (thick slices of sweet potato) and pisang (longitudinally sliced banana – our least favourite, although the variant with added chocolate inside a spring roll wrap are seriously good). These you buy to take away and are accompanied by a bag of fiery runny sambal for dipping and/or a handful of tiny dynamite green chilies for nibbling. Eighteen pieces for a dollar / twenty seven for a pound. Crisps; peanuts; are we nuts? Every pub should serve them; a definite addition to the wood-fired pizza oven at our future guest house.

Spotted a Maumere-bound bus in the street and our now default air of indifference once again paid dividends with the price. As per usual the bus was soon packed and the luggage on the roof grew with each pick-up to an impressive tottering pyramid. Ali was sardined on the back seat and a little girl stood wedged in front of her. Whilst most passengers on these buses have some child/baby perched on them (often belonging to complete strangers) it is rare for a toddler to be bold enough to brave a western lap. However, the little girl’s legs were soon buckling and following Ali’s gesture she gladly scrambled up and was rapidly asleep, slumped across Al’s chest. A few hours later, following a brief toilet stop, we all piled back in reclaiming our established positions (seats doesn’t really describe the situation) and the little girl once more climbed up on Ali’s lap brandishing a gift of some mints and offering a timid “terima kasih”; very cute. I was obviously far too scary for such open intimacy and merely had a teenager’s head lolling onto my shoulder, another small girl using one thigh as a pillow and a third tot asleep squatting between my barely open legs. An hour or so from Maumere and we were descending a mountain on tight switch-backs when Ali became aware of the driver’s eyes in his rear-view mirror. Initially they were in that startled non-blinking denial that leads to the slow eyelid-slipping state and inevitably to periodic closure. She took to yelping with each sleepy head jerk; the other passengers either asleep themselves or too busy being sick to notice. Eventually he pulled over to splash his face in a roadside stream (smiling and nodding at us in recognition as he remounted), then cranked up the sound system to even greater decibels and took to chain-smoking for the remainder of the journey. Ali remained vigilant.

Lonely Planet describes Maumere as a forlorn location which is, in our opinion, unfair. Plus, the port town – it was from here we were hoping to catch a ferry over to Sulawesi – has the cheapest beer thus far encountered in Indonesia. Hell, we rather liked the place.

The following morning saw us do battle with Pelni (the shipping company) where we discovered that a ship had departed that morning (three days late) and the next would be in ten days’ time. After much effort it became apparent that there should be another vessel leaving from Larantuka (a mere four hours along the coast) three days hence.

Larantuka reminded me somewhat, both with its name and layout, of a Fijian coastal town. It is jolly and bustling and did indeed have a ferry due. Par for Flores, guest houses were overpriced but “Rulies” compensated (big time) with a warm homely atmosphere and charming helpful staff (couldn’t do much about the rock-hard single mattresses in our room though). It also had other westerners in residence: three round-the-world bikers, including Andrew who had been on the road for four and a half years. He proved a font of knowledge on Iranian and Pakistani visas and, it turns out, is a thoroughly good egg to boot. One of the staff here, the delightful Abdul, had fallen off an ojek five months ago and was still cradling a floppy Colles-fractured forearm. Andrew had taken him to have it x-rayed and - it remarkably still being fixable - had then donated the funds to enable Abdul to travel/stay in Maumere to get it seen-to. All this time he has been carrying it unsupported leaving his hand horribly swollen (Ali constructed a sling – it looked much better the following day) and has been without painkillers of any form (we donated our stock of codeine – he got a decent nights’ sleep for once).

We spent a night with Abdul and other local (Muslim) guests getting drunk, primarily on our – apparently – dynamite arak from Moni. Somewhat later this had to be subsidized with more from Larantuka’s finest distillery that we located by torch light in a shack down by the docks. We were latterly joined by an Aussie guy (Bay – unbelievably his parents named his brother Byron) whose C.V. included stints as a salvage diver, fisherman, and currently a customs officer in the southern Ocean. He was due to fly to Bali via Kupang the next day, but after chatting decided to join us on the ship to Sulawesi instead.

Prior to boarding we met up with Bay. No, he wouldn’t be joining us below decks in economy-class; he had a private first-class cabin, thank you very much. By the time the ship arrived (late: it had already been at sea for several days) a vast crowd had assembled at the harbour-side. Then a solitary door-sized gate was opened and the multitude surged forwards from all angles, creating the inevitable bottleneck. People three-abreast became momentarily wedged before being rapidly spat out onto the quay-side; others thrust great bundles before them like battering rams; whilst some seriously misguided souls attempted to impossibly maneuver laden carts through the obviously narrower orifice. It was chaos. Once on board the economy-class disperse through the lower deck like oil on water in an attempt to find a free bunk (space on the raised platforms). We were quite capable of handling this ourselves but were ushered to unoccupied territory by a bunch of local youths who then demanded money for their services; they got diddly-squat and we got a mouthful in return. After thirty minutes of madness non-passengers, porters and hawkers disembark; everyone has now found somewhere to rest their bones; padded mats are handed out and people begin to organize their little domains; some chat in groups, whilst others get straight down to snoozing; the kopi (coffee) and nasi (rice) sellers start to circulate and relative peace descends. We were delighted to see that unlike some scary journeys we’d endured on Filipino vessels the peasants would not be locked down below. Indeed we were rather impressed all-round by economy-class on this Pelni ship: there was access to certain outside deck space; reasonably priced and edible food; relatively clean toilets and even cold showers. People stuck mostly to non-smoking below deck removing the expected constant fug and even expectoration was minimal.

The twenty hours passed in a flash. At one stage Bay came down from his lofty level for a natter. He was looking refreshed after a hot shower and had just finished eating dinner on his balcony as the sun set before him… We informed him that the smell of ammonia hadn’t detracted from Ali’s bracing shower, that my chicken/rice had also contained an additional unexpected piece of fish – that was comestible - and then proudly pointed him in the direction of our (and thirty other people’s) dusty port hole twenty feet away.

Quay-side was far more organized in Makassar, although the local transport was having a laugh; we opted to walk the supposed three kilometres to the centre of town – turned out it was less than a mile anyway. Later we met up with Bay at a restaurant bar where we treated ourselves to some magnificent giant prawns boiled in a rich broth. Beers weren’t cheap but we were being sociable. Then in waltzed a large party of local men who started to order bottles by the dozen. One man, I noted, had a Union Jack motif on his breast pocket. We were soon ingratiating ourselves and on discovering that it was a birthday bash Ali and I stood up and let rip with a gusto rendition of “Happy Birthday”. There after beer donations came flooding in.

At the Makassar bus terminal we searched in vain for a local cheapie to Rantepao the main town of the Tana Toraja region further north. These buses do exist, but we weren’t going to get on one and a plush A.C. coach had to be endured.

Tana Toraja is by far the most popular destination in Sulawesi. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains it has the lush beauty of Bali and the towering tongkonan houses, with buffalo horn-resembling roofs, of the Bataks in Sumatra. However, the region’s major tourist lure centres on Torajan funerals (tomate). These are typically held a year or more after the individual’s death when the family had saved enough to put on a good bash. In the meantime the embalmed deceased remains at home, often sitting in their favourite chair and still receiving guests (obviously in a quite unassuming manner). When finally held (now, July-August, is peak season) a funeral may last for up to a week with whole days devoted to buffalo carnage; the greater the number sacrificed the greater the individual’s status/wealth (an individual buffalo may cost as much as a small car and highly prized albino beasts far more). Eventually the dead are placed into a tongkonan roof-shaped coffin and either interred in a purpose-built cave neatly carved out of a rock face (very expensive, about $8,000), hung in a suitable location (often in natural caves), or merely mounted (we saw one child’s coffin atop a massive boulder). Rock face cave graves are sealed with an ornate door but may have a recessed ledge on which are placed Tau Tau – wooden effigies of the dead (often life-sized). .

It is possible - with the aid of a guide - to get access to a funeral, but we contented ourselves with some long walks in the rice-terraced hills, wandering from one picturesque traditional village to the next.

Rantepao is also home to a fantastic weekly market that at the moment is literally alive with buffalo and pigs – once sold the former are lovingly led away whilst the latter, retaining rather less dignity, are hauled away tethered to litters. The market also has a whole section devoted to balok (palm wine) and town has an array of small seedy establishments plying the beverage. We were very restrained and merely visited one for a taster, although we did see various locals who had obviously been on crawls around most of them.

With time limitations (just a week before our flight back to KL) we were unable to venture further north - people are currently raving about the Togean islands that are spectacularly beautiful if expensive and difficult to get to. Instead we were forced to head back to Makassar and then further south to the beaches of Pantai Bira.

Bira is supposedly the primary beach destination in south Sulawesi (the ink-blot of an island, that – to my eye – resembles an advancing anteater, is divided into south, central and northern regions). On arrival the place seemed deserted, indeed many of the guest houses and all the local eateries were closed. Ramadan had started and this is definitely an Islamic area. Unlike Makassar, where the Muslims flood to restaurants as soon as the sun descends, here the eateries remain closed. It seems many businesses in Bira simply shut up shop for a month. The reason lies in the nature of the tourism: Bira is a local’s beach retreat and they will not be partying anytime soon. So, the handful of western tourists (almost exclusively French) and the non-Islamic businesses are forced to endure and comply, respectively. Meals have to be taken at your guesthouse. Bizarrely, beer can still be bought, but not by us at the hostile prices charged (bargaining – forget it).

The beaches have lovely crisp powder white sand (bordered and liberally spread with plastic detritus : blame the locals and sea currents alike). The sea itself is clear and a myriad shades of blue, but doesn’t compensate. Until they get their act together with regards clean-up campaigns, and especially during Ramadan, we’d recommend giving the place a wide berth.

One saving grace is the dozen or so ships that are being built along the beaches to the north of town. These are hulking great Ark-like beasts, being assembled much as they would have hundreds of years ago: constructed within frameworks of wooden scaffolding using axes, hoe-like chisels as planes and mallets – with chisels – to simultaneously sink and split the foot-long wooden dowels securing the vast shaped beams of the hull; extremely impressive. There is also a naughty lady here who cooks up – during daylight hours – some new gorengan variants. Oh, and the picturesque fishing village of Kasuso some 8km up the coast is also worth the walk. Heck, the sunsets aren’t bad either…

So, by the time you read this we will be back in KL and no doubt cursing Ramadan for its hindrance on our renewed fatten-up campaigns (even Anke’s trousers refuse to stay on my hips). The biggest disappointment will be the absence of roti canai for breakfast. Still, we’re looking forward to the chance of knocking up great vats of protein-steeped pasta and drinking shed-loads of milk (plus the odd Imperial Lion stout – thank the deities for Hindus).

This time next month: Burma.

As per usual scroll to the very bottom and then click through the additional pages to see all the photos (something like 80 this time). Indeed, our little compact Nikon CoolPix (with its split casing, rusty lens mount and blue-bleeding screen) continues to do us proud (amidst the looks of scorn it receives from the SLR-brandishing majority) and we reckon this latest batch are probably the best set to date.

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5th August 2012

Rainy sunday afternoon
Hi Guys. Yes it is Sunday and raining in Dunblane so I thought I would look at your blog. Fantastic. Stunning photos and story lines to match. Now please bear in mind that you were in competition with Andy Murray winning the Gold but I honestly find your blog so interesting. Thanks for letting me know about it and am now (along with Liz) part of your faithful followers. Good luck and keep the news coming. Chris

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