Town by the sea

I headed back to Ende to catch my boat back to Bali, a 36-hour trip on a Pelni passenger vessel that would retrace my eastward route in reverse.

Ende occupies the tip of a mountainous peninsula on the mid-southern coast of Flores, with the Mount Ia volcano sheltering one end from the sea. It’s a small town, bustling in its own quiet way, a thoroughly charming place and I found the people to be very welcoming as well. I didn’t get a chance to climb the volcano but there’s supposed to be an excellent view of the town from the summit.

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Looking north from the wet market in the late afternoon. Most of the traders have left, but I presume it would be full of people in the early morning when the day’s catch comes in.

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Fresh fish, judging by the quality of fish on display at the Ende market. I was the only person in a restaurant in Labuhanbajo when I ordered steamed fish for lunch. It took an hour to arrive and the cook apologized – he had to get it from a fisherman’s boat. That’s pretty fresh…

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Tubers – not quite sure whether they’re boiled and eaten or turned into something else. I think they probably come from the highland areas.

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A heap of cattle bones beside the wet market. Surprisingly, it didn’t smell so bad but clouds of flies buzzed around the mess.

Now I know why I miss shooting black & white: there’s a palpable glow to the images even though I used a cheap, half-smashed zoom lens. It took two years and a rare scanner to get images I was satisfied with, something I can’t tolerate if I had to do it continuously. I can get instant pictures with digital but there’s something sorely lacking in the smooth washes of colour, compared to the tight contrast and soft grain of HP5+ or Neopan 400 (no Tri-X for me, way too grainy). And no digital b/w conversion is as good as the real thing if you’re looking for a grainy look, and adding noise in Photoshop is just plain cheating.

Maybe all this is a subtle way of me telling myself to get a Kodak RFS scanner…

Turned Into A Toad

After Lombok, I raced through Sumbawa on a bus headed for the port for Flores. I don’t remember much of the island, except for a horns-blaring quarrel with oncoming traffic over who had the right of way on a tight mountain road. Everything else passed by in a haze of fatigue and screaming, sore muscles. Next thing I knew, I was dumped out at 1am with a group of other unfortunate passengers who’d been duped by the express bus company. We ended up squeezed in a minibus that waited until dawn before setting off.

The ferry from Flores couldn’t negotiate the heaving waters near Komodo Island so the schedule at the terminal meant nothing. An army of trucks sat idle at the port, the drivers fuming, their cargo of fruits and vegetables slowly rotting while days passed waiting for the ferry. The prospect of more waiting nearly drove me crazy and I went from wasted to paranoid to utterly indifferent and back again until someone invited me to join their group of gossiping passengers. A medical student heading home from Jakarta who had spent a gruelling week travelling across the archipelago by bus, a couple working in Lombok, even a construction worker who was returning for his father’s funeral after years in Malaysia… everyone was excited about finally getting across to their home island.

The others had a good laugh when I chatted with the construction guy in Malay, trying to make sense of the lazy, drawling dialect that they’d rarely heard. I found out that he had permanent resident status and lived with his family in my hometown… small world. It wasn’t easy making a living at the bottom rung of the economic ladder; at least he didn’t have to worry about being deported for being an illegal immigrant in sometimes-xenophobic Malaysia.

The ferry finally arrived at dusk and the relieved truckers loaded their cargo. I found an empty row of seats and slept, a dead sack, until the ferry docked at Labuhanbajo just before sunrise the next day.

It was no go to Komodo Island and its famed lizards, tantalizingly just offshore from Labuhanbajo – not enough money for that and a return ticket. Instead, I hopped on a minibus headed for the interior. The decrepit thing roared its way up mountain switchbacks, then descended into lush valleys of rice paddies before creeping up the next craggy slope. Looking at the imposing volcanic landscape and isolated settlements, it was easy to see why Flores had many different ethnic groups and mutually unintelligible languages in such a small area.

I broke my journey in the highland town of Bajawa and met up with an Australian anthropologist and a local politico who was keen to show me around. Riding on his motorbike around town, it seemed that he knew everybody and was busy preparing for an upcoming trip to Jakarta to commemorate President Susilo (SBY’s) recent victory at the polls. The people in Bajawa had converted to Christianity only in the early 20th century so they still held strongly to animist traditions. Most still live in traditional communities, some surrounding monolithic rock tombs of important ancestors. I remember having tea and goreng pisang with my host, sitting on his father’s ornately tiled tomb in his front yard… it seemed like we were sharing our meal and our mundane conversation with the old man, like the dead were still very much part of the life of the living. I’d never seen that attitude towards death before.

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And then it was on to Moni in the center of the island, to see the coloured volcanic lakes of Kelimutu. All the resthouses sat empty during a lull in the tourist season. These men, above, were playing chess as I walked up the road clinging to the mountainside.

Kelimutu, once a long eight-hour trek on foot, now took only an hour by motorbike thanks to the road leading almost to the summit. I arrived there just before sunrise, downing a much-needed cup of hot coffee at the highest viewing platform. No point really, because the sun showed its face for a minute before banks of fog flowed thickly in, and the others quickly left. I had to face the freezing cold for another hour before the fog finally cleared and the three lakes showed their colour: black, aquamarine and a dull maroon. Apparently minerals from below and from cracks in the caldera walls stain the water, with the colour changing every few years.

(too bad it’s black & white…)

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The mountain is sacred for the local people who believe it to be a gathering place for dead souls. Which meant that the now-persistent bug in my stomach would get me into a heap of divine trouble if I did anything inappropriate behind some scraggly bush… so I raced back, glad as hell to find a public toilet near the start of the summit trail. It was noon when I arrived back at my resthouse, the trail down the mountain winding past little villages and silent groves, a young girl trying to sell ikat-weave cloth to me while seeming resigned to there being so few tourists now to support the weavers.

Doggy climbs volcano

What better way to start a photo blog than to trawl up old, forgotten negatives? These photos were taken on a trip to the eastern islands of Indonesia in early 2005, during one of those bouts of wanderlust that periodically afflicts me. I’d never climbed a volcano before and Mt Rinjani on Lombok, an island neighboring Bali, seemed as good as any for a first-timer. It was a 3-day hike up the north slope of the caldera, down into the crater and up the other side; my knees haven’t sounded the same since. I skipped the pre-dawn hike to the 3800m summit and slept in because it was freezing cold. My tent-mate Claudia made it up there and thought I was a wuss for missing out on the view 2000m down to the crater lake. I was poking fun at a group of snail-slow climbers until somebody pointed out they actually went for the summit, whereas I slept. Sometimes it’s better keep your own mouth shut…

I tried scanning these negs before on my cheap Canon flatbed and it was a disaster – blocked shadows, blown highlights, soft scans. Only recently I had them rescanned on a Kodak RFS scanner and it did a fantastic job retrieving all that detail. A little tonal tweaking and I had the look I wanted. Makes me want to shoot b/w exclusively again and ditch that digital nonsense, if only I could afford the Kodak.

From the massive and stark geology, the sheer wildness of the place (at least during the off-peak season), changing habitats from dense lowland forest to thin scrub, to the sense of camaraderie between my fellow climbers and guides – it was an awesome experience for a first climb. I went to Kelimutu on Flores later but that was more like a small hill, with even a road nearly all the way up. There’s Tambora on Sumbawa, a real monster of a volcano… for next time.

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5. Cold, miserable dog waiting for us on the descent. A furious thunderstorm clobbered our camp during the night; Adil and another porter had their tent collapse in the rain so they hid under the floorboards of the roofed shelter. My tent leaked everywhere but I would’ve slept through it, probably half-soaked, if Claudia hadn’t shaken me awake. That dog followed us down the mountain even with a gaping old cut on his shoulder.

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4. Adil takes a nap on the climb out of the crater, probably waiting for my slow ass to catch up. He climbed with only a pair of rubber sandals while carrying twenty kilos on a pole balanced on his shoulders. Amazing how he pushed himself to get up the mountain… I couldn’t even lift his load off the ground. He doesn’t make much from each trip but it’s a lot more than simply working for someone else. It’s a difficult country and there are searing inequalities visible everywhere.

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3. Down at the crater lake. Locals spend weeks here, catching fish and drying it before carrying it out later for sale. The cloud-wreathed summit is at left, while the new dome is on the right. It erupts once in a while and steam seethes from some of its vents.

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2. On the north rim, with guide/porter Adil in the middle foreground and Claudia standing. Pierre, a French guy who returned with a really bad sunburn on his bald head, snaps some pictures. Sorry mate, can’t remember the name of the guy offering cookies.

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1. View from the north rim, lucky shot of the sun momentarily hiding behind clouds.

First past the post

is the one with the most.