27.09.2008 - 06.10.2008
I'm in Maumere, on the island of Flores, towards the eastern end of the Nusa Tenggara chain. This is the first internet connection I have had in ten days or more, and I think it is a mobile phone connection. There are no English-language newspapers either. I have no idea what has happened in the world in the last ten days.
I spent six nights in Labuanbajo, at the western end. It is an extended fishing village, with little of interest of itself. But there I fulfilled two lifetime ambitions: to see the Komodo Dragon and to see manta rays. The diving in the Komodo National Park is sensational.
Flores is fairly small, probably only 200 or 250 miles from west to east. But it is rugged (volcanoes again) and fairly remote. It takes about 24 hours to traverse by bus: longer than than it takes to get across Java or up Great Britain. (Note to Americans: Great Britain is an island, not a country.)
I have now taken five bus rides and nearly finished the journey. I am moving fast, trying to outrun my visa. The rides are masochistically entertaining. Not a single metre of the road is straight and level; you are always accelerated in one direction or another, and there has been some vomiting at every stage. Not by me, though: this post is dedicated to the discoverer of dramamine.
The first stage, from Labuanbajo to Ruteng, was on a bus with plenty of legroom. There was a moving plastic bag at the back: a chicken, initially docile. There was no music pollution. I did not realise how spoiled I was.
We passed countryside that was less arid than I had expected. Across the length of Flores, arid brown scrub or savannah, reminiscent of the Mediterranean in August, alternates with fantastically lush, green cultivated land. This may be because we climb and descend a lot. Among the few plants I can recognise are jackfruit, mango, coffee, bamboo, sugar palm (for making arak), bananas, coconuts, rice, maize and cashews. Drying by the side of the road, coffee, rice, cloves. You smell the cloves before you see them.
We ride across plains and cross the occasional gorge or canyon. There is little or no water in the rivers at this time of year: the rainy season starts next month or this.
We pass houses made of woven bamboo, of planks or of brick. The bamboo is often woven into pretty pixellated diamonds. Even the meanest hovel is likely to be roofed with zinc; thatch is very rare in the west, although less so in the centre. A small roofed hut or two is often found by the houses. They are made of planks or semicylinders of bamboo, a yard square. A half tyre hangs on one wall of each. At first I thought they were privies, but then I saw the snouts: they are pighouses. It is good to see pigs, for that means pork. The population of Flores is 85% Christian, entirely Catholic as far as I can tell. People have names like John, Philip, Michael, Francisco, Hans, Hendrik and Fannie. The schools and seminaries are named after saints, popes, and pope-saints.
Unlike Laos, where even the poorest hovel has a satellite dish, only a minority are dished here. Those that are boast dishes worthy of Jodrell Bank.
Sick-filled plastic bags are ejected from the windows, along with all other used items. Rubbish is discarded immediately all over southeast Asia. Canals of jetsam flank each road.
When we arrived at Ruteng, perhaps a mile up, it was pouring and cold. The only level road in town was under water. My room is overpriced at $15. The only hot water in Flores seems to be in the plentiful hot springs and in the coffee. A good room has a mosquito net and its own bathroom, which contains a mandi - a large basin of cold water - and a seatless western toilet. There is no flush: you scoop the water into the the toilet to flush it and over yourself to wash. No paper, soap or towel is provided. It is easy to get used to all this, though - much easier than adjusting to the absence of cheese and wine.
The Flores "hobbit", Homo floresiensis, was discovered in a cave near Ruteng. But there is no point going to visit; it is just a cave. And it was raining.
Ruteng dawned fine and I breakfasted amid swarms of attractive beetles, each with a black head, terracotta thorax and lustrous blue-green or copper carapace. On the bus to Bajawa, there is music, at an acceptable volume. The music is largely synthesised keyboard with a boing-boing drum machine accompaniment. The singer has an irritating squeaky voice and every song is in an identical fast four-four tempo. It is saved from utter banality by its Arabic-style scale and style, with frequent mordants and turns. Jean-Michel Jarre meets Betty Boo meets Khaled and detracts from all of them.
I spent the afternoon in Bajawa on the back of a motorbike visiting Ngada villages and some hot springs. More on that another time perhaps. Most of the men in Bajawa wear football shirts: English, Italian and local clubs are represented, most commonly Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
In Bajawa I had dinner with Calvin, my driver and guide. All the tourists on the road seem to end up in the same place. I recognised faces from Ruteng the night before: A Dutch couple from Amsterdam, a French couple, two German girls. There are perhaps ten of us heading along the road east each day. Most of the others have bought tour packages and are travelling by car; this is a very good way to see the island, since it is slightly quicker and you can stop and get out when you like. It is not too expensive if you are in a group. In the restaurant, I was complaining to Francisco, a Christian Florin(?) with woolly-haired Papuan features, about being woken up before five every day by the mosques in Labuanbajo. "It seems God is deaf", he wisely said. The azan is recorded and amplified at an unnecessarily stupefying volume.
From Bajawa to Moni is five or six hours, with a change in Ende. The buses got smaller and louder. I was underneath the loudspeaker on one, and it was deafening. The first bus had a DVD player and was playing a karaoke DVD of country music, sung in the Ngada language. Truly terrible. I unscrewed the loudspeaker, pulled out the cone and mimed breaking the wires; only then did the driver grudgingly reduce the volume. There were four people and a chicken next to me. The men all smoked. One the second bus, the balance was askew, the bass ear-haemorrhaging, the melody inaudible. But the scenery, especially after Ende, is lovely: a striking canyon, and then a valley, the hills wooded and the valley terraced. Big rocks lie here and there in the fields, volcanic ejecta I suppose. And then a seafront road. We pass a beach of black volcanic sand covered in striking pale blue rocks the colour of peppermints. Later we see the same stratum a hundred feet up.
Lots of people line the road doing nothing in particular. The older women all chew betel, and when they open their red-stained mouths to display their black teeth the effect is disquieting: they look like witches. The kids all shout 'hello, mister', of course.
In Moni I went for a walk through some villages, involuntarily attended a Catholic service in Indonesian, and then went to the top of Kelimutu this morning, more of which another time. Today I was in the middle of a line of five men and two chickens on the back of a minibus that was already supersaturated when I embarked. There were thirty or more people inside, and more on the roof. The men chain-smoked kretek and the chickens clucked along to Eminem.
Maumere is a shithole, up there with Kon Tum and Tingo Maria. I'm flying from here to Bali in a week and the plan in the meantime is to head to Lembata, an island to the east of Flores, even more isolated than this. I hope to catch up with a couple of people in Lewoleba and to visit the unusual village of Lamalera before the visa expires. There will be no more internet connections for at least a week.