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.
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…)
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.