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Strands afar remote

Pulau Lembata

all seasons in one day 31 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

The volcanic chain that is eastern Nusa Tenggara begins to run out east of Flores. (In fact it turns north and disappears for a while before turning up again in Maluku and then northern Sulawesi.) There are three islands known as the Solor Archipelago, and then a pair of which the larger is Alor. At this point we are north of Timor and only 400 miles or so from Australia.

The largest island in the former archipelago is Lembata. I came here, if there was a goal, to visit Lamalera, a whaling village in the south. But really I was here just to visit a rather remote area.

First I had to get from Maumere to Larantuka. I waited for a minibus for over an hour. I managed to squeeze on the third that came past, although it was full by normal standards. I sat between a fat man and a nursing mother, and could get only half my back and one cheek on to the seat – a bad journey.

Every bemo and minibus on Flores has some writing at the top of the windscreen. Examples: Beckham; Allah Besar; Golgota; McJagger.

In Larantuka I bumped into Matthew, from Donegal, with whom I had dived in Labuanbajo. He was trying to get to Alor but had been stranded in Larantuka, so he came to Lembata instead. I had been looking for Oreos to take to Lembata; Matthew suggested that they had disappeared from the shelves because they are made in China.

The trip took four hours across a millpond of a sea. The ferry was wooden but in good condition, and four TVs on the upper deck played overamplified Indonesian karaoke. We passed the islands of Adonara and Solor on the way. Adonara possesses a mile-high volcano. It is the same shape as mounts Ile Api on Lembata, Rinjani, Batur and Semeru: conical. Adonara looks like a joint Normal distribution.

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In Lewoleba, the capital of Lembata, we found a very cheap homestay for 40,000 Rp, about $4. Unfortunately, there was no fan. It had been getting hotter as I headed east, and Lembata is very hot indeed. We went looking for beer, and found only warm beer. It still tasted pretty good; perhaps I’ve been travelling too long. Chargrilled chicken with rice for dinner at a local warung, where we took our beers, was simple but delicious.

After dinner, we decided that it was too hot to cope without a fan, and checked into another hotel as well, where we commandeered two fans for the room.

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The following day I started wandering around Lewoleba at 8 am and it was already fiercely hot. I discovered that there is really nothing at all in Lewoleba, except for a lot of traffic. The shops are the same as you see in the provinces all over Malaysia and Indonesia: mobile phone shops, above all; little grocery/chemist kiosks; motorbike repair shops hardware; bag shops.

There used to be a central market but it burned down. Now there is a dismal central square where it used to be. In most parts of the town you can see Ile Api, the island’s volcano.

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The Lonely Planet says that Lembata receives only 200 tourists a year, although I think this an underestimate. Nevertheless people are not used to foreigners. Everyone wants to greet you: ‘hello Mister’; ‘hello Missus’ from the confused; selamat pagi (good morning). One or two of the shopkeepers, though, speak acceptable English, which is a surprise.

The Lonely Planet, early 2007 edition, is also out of date. Not only do you have to double the prices all over Indonesia, but most of the facts about Lembata are wrong.

There is a Muslim kampong by the sea. From there you can see the island of Adonara.

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Kids followed us as we wandered around. We found a family gathering seaweed. Dad came back in a sampan and he and Mum carried seaweed to the shore. Grandpa turned up in another sampan with more seaweed. The seaweed is farmed: I swam into such a farm when snorkelling in Maumere. It looks rubbery and unappetising, nothing like Japanese seaweed; I wonder whether it is for agar-agar, but Matthew says they also boil the stuff down and eat it.

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At 11.30 I boarded a gaily-painted truck (lemon, lime and pink) bound for Lamalera. It wandered around town for an hour and a half picking up goods and passengers, and departed fully stuffed. Most of the floor was taken up by dusty cement bags (cement is semen in Indonesian, incidentally). There were a lot of leaky petrol cans; my bags got petrol all over them. The accelerant did not, of course, stop the passengers from smoking and flicking their ash willy-nilly. Passengers got on and off but on average there were 21 of us in the rear; the overflow went on to the roof.

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The road was, as expected, awful. It was as windy as those in Flores, but unsealed. It is about 20 km in a straight line from Lewoleba to Larantuka, but it took four hours. We passed the aftermath of a lot of slash and burn. Much of the island is covered in dense creepers and dry brush. Like Flores, it looks like a forest fire waiting to happen. But the only evidence I have seen of a forest fire was in Lombok. The biggest forest fire recorded was in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, in 1983. It covered 3,000 square kilometres of forest.

Above 500 m or so, it turns greener. A high fraction of the trees are, I think, kapok and cashew.

Every now and then we round a corner and nearly crash into an oncoming vehicle. Cries of “Yesus Maria” go up. The passengers do not speak to each other in Indonesian. They are Lamaholot, like the people in Larantuka. Like most others in Flores, the women wear wraparound ikat cloth and t-shirts. There is a lot of ethnic diversity in these rugged islands. In Maumere they are Sikka, in Bajawa Ngada, in Ende they are Ende, and in Ruteng Manggarai. In Alor there are twenty languages, from seven language groups (and headhunting officially ended only in the 1950s). In Lamalera I ask the name of the language and am told ‘Ba’ir’ (I think).

We arrive in Lamalera at five, not long before dusk. I am taken to Mister Ben’s. If there is a Mister Ben I never meet him. The lower part squats around a cove, the higher part overlooking it. I sit on a balcony looking at the view, drinking coffee and listening to waves, cockerels and pigs. On the beach children play foot-volleyball, very skilfully. All the houses at beach level are boathouses.

The village is a whaling village. They hunt in rowing boats that have not changed over centuries. Their main aim is sperm whales, of which they catch up to 25 a year. The global population of sperm whales is around a million, and they are subsistence whalers, so they have a waiver from the IWC. They also hunt orca, pilot whales and mantas.

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When the find a target, one of the men stands in the bow with a harpoon about eight yards long. He plunges it into the target and hangs on. I have seen photographs; it is a bloody business.

A couple of weeks before I arrive in Lamalera they caught five whales. I am not expecting there to be much, if any, whaling while I am there. It does not happen very often.

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I stay in the house above the village for 60,000 Rp ($6) a night, all meals included. My room has a mosquito net but no fan, and it is extraordinarily hot. For dinner on the balcony I am given rice, some greens and instant noodles. The rice- pounded this afternoon – is delicious, good enough to eat with sambal alone. The noodles are lovely, full of MSG. The following night I am given exactly the same thing, and the utility derived from the meal is much diminished. The balcony smells of nam pla, Thai fish sauce; lumps of dried whale meat hang from a string.

I have bought a packet of kretek cigarettes to distribute. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the cove and the lights of the village, I try one. A pleasantly contemplative mood arrives. I can see the point.

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The following morning, before seven, I wander around the village. Lumps of whale are everywhere.

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I pass a pile of vertebrae and ribs. On the beach I find several skulls, all are too small to be sperm whale skulls; too small too, I think, to be killer whale; perhaps they are pilot whales. [Since returning to the UK I have seen a killer whale skull in the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge; it was remarkably small.]

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I have an idea of getting on a boat that is going out at seven, but two charmless Australian journalists have already booked their places and do not want anyone else on board. They go out for a couple of hours to take pictures.

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So I wander around and chat to some people on the beach.

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Then while walking through the village I am invited up on to the verandah by two women who were on the bus they day before. They are Anna and Maria, and they live in Larantuka. They have travelled back to Lembata to see their father, Bapak Yosep; it is his eighty-eighth birthday. His remaining tooth pokes upwards when he opens his mouth. He is very pale. (Incidentally, the Indonesian for old is tua, which means pale; young is muda, which also means dark. I had assumed this was because clothes fade, but perhaps skin does too.) He is very quiet; not surprising, actually, because Anna talks all the time as she did on the bus. Also on the verandah is Yosep’s friend, also called Yosep, who is 77. He wears glasses as thick as milk bottles.

Maria disappears instantly into the kitchen and I talk to Anna and Yosep. The younger Yosep used to work on the nearby island of Adonara, grinding maize. Anna lived in Malaysia for twelve years, working as a babysitter, returning last year. “Malaysia is better than Indonesia”, she says firmly. I ask why. “The economic situation is better.” Unarguable. As is often the case, it is easier to follow conversations in Indonesian when the subject is abstract or technical, because then all the terms are English loan words.

Tea is served, inside. Actually, it is Energen, a chocolate drink with corn and oats. I express enthusiasm but don’t like it much, and I’m not much of an actor. It’s cool indoors. The walls are whitewashed and about six feet, tall, so they do not reach the roof. There is no ceiling. As we sit the others quickly and silently pray, while I dive in immediately. Oops. Various photos of Christ and the Virgin adorn the walls. In an adjoining bedroom I can see a shrine.

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I go for a swim in the bay. Visibility is not good, but I do see a number of reef fish, including a pair of Vlaminck’s unicornfish. And in the shallows are a number of very large whalebones.

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Since there are no boats I decide to walk along the coast to Tapobali. I ask someone how far it is, and am told 2 km. This turns out to be a typical Indonesian answer; if you don’t know, you answer anyway. I buy 1.5 litres of water and a small bottle of a sports drink. It’s nowhere near enough. I’m walking in the middle of the day. Two kilometres down the road I ask again. Again the answer is two kilometres. It turns out to be about five in all.

It is hot and dry. The land is naturally scrub, but cashew trees dominate the landscape by the path.

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Every single person along the way greets me: ‘Hello mister’ or ‘Selamat siang’. They don’t see many westerners out here. I walk for a while with a schoolteacher and a few of his pupils. School finishes at 11.10 am. He says he teaches English, but is either unwilling or unable to converse in English. One thing that reflects well on Indonesian primary education, though, is the quality of the Indonesian spoken. Everyone, even small children, speaks Indonesian well. This is a surprise: only 10% of the population of Indonesia speaks Bahasa Indonesia as a mother tongue. It is like Italy at the time of unification.

It is polite to ask permission to take photographs of people, but here there is no need. I am carrying my camera in my rucksack, but even so most people I pass, and all the children, are desperate to have their portret taken. It’s the same on Flores. I try to oblige.

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After two hot hours of walking I reach Tapobali, hoping to find a shop to buy water. There is a kios, but it looks as though it has not been opened in a long time. There is a lovely view over the sea. Over the horizon is Timor. It feels like the end of the earth. I am likely to visit places that are geographically more remote – Papua, Maluku – but none will be harder to get to than here.

All the children in the village run to say hello. They have wonderful names: Hendrikus, Veronika, Dominika, Anjelina, Sabina, Bernadette, Monika, Yosefina. My favourite is Immakulata. And after that I slog back for another couple of hours.

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You can see the variety of faces in Indonesia. The classic Malay face, as described by Wallace, has a recessed brow, relatively round eyes, a small, wide nose and a wide mouth. They have straight, jet hair. People’s mouths often seem too big for their faces. Their lips, even though not especially full, tend to sit forward of a line drawn between nose and chin. This sounds terrible, but actually I find Indonesian women better-looking, on average, than Thais or Vietnamese. When Malays smile it is a big smile. (The proportion of Thai and Vietnamese women who are good-looking is about the same as the proportion of English or German. This is highly subjective, of course.)

The ‘true’ Papuan, as Wallace put it (his ethnography being Victorian), has frizzy black hair, darker skin, and more pronounced lips, nose and brow. But the point is that everything is a continuum: skin colours vary from caffe latte to espresso; hair from straight to frizzy, with everything in between. So these girls have wavy hair and fairly pale skin.

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As you go east you the frequency of curly hair (or papua in Malay) increases, but that’s about all. And skin colour is only loosely correlated to hair curl, if at all. There is no line separating distinct races.

At this point I had hoped to return to Lewoleba to climb Ile Api, but there is only one truck a day, at 4am. So I catch the truck the following morning. I had been hoping to climb the mountain with some people from Médecins du Monde, a French NGO which was founded in 1979 by 16 refuseniks from Médecins Sans Frontières, including Bernard Kouchner. They are here to conduct a pilot public health programme for malaria. It is funded by a Spanish corporate donor. There are three foreign staff and I think 60-odd Indonesians, including guards and drivers. They work in English as often as not. The statistics show a high incidence of malaria on the island, although the statistics are probably wrong. There are certainly plenty of mosquitoes.

I had met Cesar, Pauline and Laura while diving in Labuanbajo, and had then snorkelled with the MdM people in Labuanbajo, and had met up with Cesar on my first night in Lewoleba. Cesar, a doctor from Lima, is the programme coordinator; Laura is a nurse from Indonesia; Pauline is from Brittany and does the finance and HR. Paul, from Belgium, is the lab technician. Cesar has worked or studied in Peru, France, Spain and England. He is a top bloke, which is fortunate because he never stops talking.

In the event I return to Lewoleba too late, and the MdM people have already set off to climb the mountain in order to avoid the heat of the day. In order to climb the mountain you first have to get a guide. You must pass through a village with a lot of antique objects of spiritual value, and someone must pray to the spirits. It turns out that it is not possible to climb, as there is a funeral on. So, fortunately for me, they return to Lewoleba and Cesar makes ceviche. (He originally wanted to be a chef and studied medicine as a second-best.) We sit and drink beer during the afternoon and then dine out for £1 in the evening. Indeed, I didn’t do much for the local economy. In four nights on the island I managed to spend about $50.

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That was a long post, because I am typing flat out. I will try not to be so prolix in future. For my sake, not yours.

Posted by Wardsan 15:31 Archived in Indonesia

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