Flores loves Jesus

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
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Trip End Sep 08, 2012


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Where I stayed
Wini Rai 1

Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Saturday, June 9, 2012

Our last night on the Anal Laut is spent in quiet solitude, docked at the Labuanbajo jetty. Even if we wanted to leave the boat we couldn't as the tide is so low even the young, agile crew have to swing from the raised anchor, tightrope walk up the mooring line and scramble over the concrete wall above. We aren't going to be able to do that. Earlier Wawan bought us a big fish, Sali cooked it up in the tiny galley and all of us, including the crew, sat around on the deck and devoured it. When all the young ones depart the boat for a night of shore leave, Sheila and I finished off our little bottle of vodka and hit the sack early. 

Morning, and the first day of our Flores adventure begins. We plan to spend a couple of days in Labuanbajo, just to take care of mundane things like laundry and fill up on some western food in one of the town's traveller restaurants. Labuanbajo is fast becoming a popular Indonesian destination, what with its easy access to Komodo, the nearby diving opportunities and its direct flights from Bali. It's certainly a picturesque place, if a bit ramshackle, and there's an exotic feel to it with its yacht studded harbour and great view. It is also the gateway to the island of Flores and that in itself makes it worth the journey.

Flores is a big place, a long, meandering island that streches from Labuanbajo on its west coast to Larantuka on the east, almost 1000kms away. It is notoriously difficult to travel across, mainly because of the state of the roads which wind and twist over some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in Indonesia. A word of advice, before you buy transport tickets for the island - check out the various travel agents along the main road rather than trust the advice from independent agents like we did when we allowed our boat guide, Sali, to buy a bus ticket for us. Basically, he overcharged us by a considerable amount, with the spiel about how we will get ripped off by the travel agents... not so!

Whatever happens, travel on Flores is difficult and will cost more than it will in Bali or Java, unless you opt for the local bus. These are not for the faint-hearted, being over-crowded, wreckless and also serving as produce and freight transport. Imagine spending 14 hours on a small bus or crammed into the back of a lorry with people, chickens and who knows what else - we aren't that hardy

Anyway, armed with our over-priced minibus tickets, we say good bye to Wawan, Barry and the crew of the Anal Laut and check into the Gardena Hotel, a rambling collection of bungalows built on hillside terraces with a terrific view of the harbour. It's great to relax here after the excitement of the boat journey and we discover a great bar and restaurant just up the road - the Lounge. It serves a good version of western food and has reliable wifi too so we spend quite a few hours of every day there. There's not much else for us to do other than sit on our bungalow verandah and watch the comings and goings in the port below. One morning we are woken, first by the call to prayer, then by the sound of crowds cheering and yelling. There is a big passenger ferry down on the dock, the weekly Pelni Line boat that takes people to all parts of eastern Indonesia. The vessel loading below us is bound for Sulewesi and Kalimantan (Borneo), such is the exotic nature of this place.

As for us, we have tickets that will take us three quarters of the way across Flores to the island's capital, the small city of Maumere. It is there that we hope to finally extend our Indonesian visa for another month, though the word on the street (Lonely Planet website mainly) is that it is often an expensive and unpleasant task and subject to the whims and corruption of the far flung immigration officials... we'll see. Our transport is a step above the local bus, a large minivan used by locals and tourists alike who don't want to rough it on the cheap seats. The journey will first take us to the town of Ruteng, about five hours away, where we will stay for the night. On the second day we will proceed to Maumere via Ende, a 14 hour trip. We can only imagine what the journey will be like.

On the morning of our departure the minibus arrives to pick us up and we try and sit in the best seats, the ones with legroom behind the front seats. The driver says no, we must sit in the back somewhere, but Sheila is already inside and refuses to move. There's a stand-off for a while as we argue our case. We need the legroom and why shouldn't we get these seats as they're empty. The driver and the ticket rep say "it is not possible" and we say it is, and so on for 10 minutes until we win and the bus leaves with us firmly ensconced in our spot.

The bus trawls around the back roads of Labuanbajo for a while picking up more passengers and when it is full we leave town. Immediately the road climbs up and up into heavily jungled mountain terrain. It weaves and turns around steep hairpins, over gravel sections and parts that are being repaired by crews of barefoot workers. 

One of the things that makes Flores different to the west of Indonesia, is that it's population is 90% Christian. This is evidenced by the proliferation of churches and religious iconography found everywhere, although most of the coastal fishing-based communities are Moslem and there are mosques in every town with the usual, amplified call to prayer blaring out five times a day. Churches, crucifixes and pictures of Jesus and Mary are common sights and during one part of the first day's journey to Ruteng, we take a detour to pick someone up from a seminary buried deep in the jungle. Here dozens of young men and boys are waiting while one of their number, a young trainee priest boards the bus. All Indonesian buses carry at least a driver and a helper. The helper in this case is bumped from his seat and to our amazement he is stuffed into the boot of the minivan with all the luggage where he will spend several hours folded up like a collapsible human.

As we leave this valley we see some kind of religious event unfolding along the road. In front of every house there are homemade constructions of palms and banana trees with small shrines set up on plastic chairs, each containing kitsch statues of Jesus and or Mary , the residents waiting beside them in anticipation. Several miles down the road we see why - we pass a procession centred on an open topped jeep with what must be the Bishop of Flores standing in the back blessing each home shrine as he passes.

About 3pm we descend from the mountains into a wide plain of rice fields and buffalo and enter the town of Ruteng. We are dropped at the Rima Hotel which is listed in the LP. It's a nice little place with large rooms and a charming, mountain town ambience, and very few other guests. The Lonely Planet doesn't speak that highly of Ruteng, saying it is "sprawling and charmless" despite it's attractive location surrounded by mountains. Local sights nearby, and the reason tourists might stop here, other than in transit, is for some nearby interesting native villages and the "spider-web rice fields," neither of which we are intending to see.

After resting up for the afternoon we decide to walk into town and find something to eat. We are no more than 100m down the road when we are "hello mistered" by a group of young men hanging out in front of a shop. We say hello back and they invite us over, offer us arak and coffee and seats and before we know it we are ensconced in a friendly drinking session with these guys. They buy more arak and the owner of the shop, which happens to be a bakery, brings out some cakes and someone gets a guitar and the next thing we are singing and Ruteng becomes one of our best little experiences. 

These guys are all students at the local college next door, except for Johannes, an erudite and well dressed man who owns the bakery. These guys are also unabashed Christians, one is even studying theology, but they aren't fundamentalists as we know them in the west. Their beliefs are based on simple faith and it doesn't stop them from singing and drinking either. We are entranced and their openess and unconditional friendship - they aren't selling us anything and we aren't buying, it is pure fellowship. By 8pm it is cold and we are starving so two of the guys, Andyk and Charlz, offer to run us up to a cheap local eatery on their motorbikes for some nasi goreng. This they do and we are only too happy to shout them some dinner too, as a thankyou for making us feel welcome in their so called "charmless town," some times the Lonely Planet needs a slap!

At six in the morning we return to the bakery to honour Johanne's invitation for coffee before we leave town. Despite all his family being still in a Saturday morning haze, we are welcomed in and have coffee and cake before saying our farewells and receiving an invite to return sometime for a proper visit and free guided tour of the area... you never know.

A new minivan, half an hour late, eventually picks us up from the Rima and so begins our second day - the marathon 14 hour journey to Maumere. The road is no better than the previous day, in fact, as far as roads go it is worse, but that also means the scenery is even more spectacular than before. The road climbs into mountainous landscapes, past steep valleys with hill-hugging rice terraces, broad sweeping plateaus and the cloud draped cone of a large volcano near the town of Bajawa. We sweep down from the mountains, past a string of seaside fishing village then climb again. Hours later we descend once more to the coast and follow the shore for many miles, stopping for lunch at a roadside warung (restaurant).  

The shoreline is all fishing villages and black sand beaches with the road following the contours of the many bays that indent the coast. About 4pm we enter the port town of Ende, but only stop to off load our passenger priest. Then we head inland again, entering  a narrow gorge, the road climbing precariously above a rocky mountain stream, sheer cliffs looming above us, the shadows of the evening descending all around. Once night falls the scenery  becomes irrelevant, though we know it is out there. All we want now is for the journey to end, but it is interminable. The road is a mess with works camps all along it, long sections of gravel and narrow bits between piles of boulders.

We stop for a rest break in a dark village somewhere in the hills. We sit with another travelling priest and drink coffee and while there experience a short power cut. No one winces as we are plunged into pitch darkness. Candles are lit and we finish our coffee, paying the little nun who stands behind a glass case that offers rosaries and Jesus statues for sale.

Our travel pain finally comes to an end about 9pm when we roll down out of the hills and onto the coastal plain where Maumere sits. The bus drops us right in front of our hotel of choice, The Wini Rai 1. We don't have a booking but we also don't expect it to be oversubscribed - Maumere is almost at the furthest reach of the Indonesian archipelago and not many tourists, local or otherwise come here. The hotel staff come out to greet us and carry our bags into the large, spartan lobby, we are shown to our room, a big double with air-con, cable TV and western toilet. We quickly duck across the street to a small, insecty restaurant for some Ayam Goreng and Nasi (fried chicken and rice), then it's off to bed to sleep off our aches and pains from the marathon journey across Flores.
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