Hot springs eternal

Trip Start Sep 11, 2007
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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Before I tell you about Bajawa, I'll just say a little bit about the Trans-Flores Highway, which runs the length of Flores. A little comparison might help: the 'Highway' is in fact smaller and more winding than most of the small winding roads that make their way through the Yorkshire Dales. It rises and falls over 1000m as it goes along, mostly sealed, though there are patches featuring impressive potholes that have all the feel of a very bumpy lane.

Unfortunately the constitution of Florenese inhabitants does not, as a rule, match their terrain. There are sick bags in front of every seat in the minibuses we used to get from one place to another, and these are regularly used by locals. Another moment when I'm rather glad to be deaf there! There may be quite a lot wrong with me but my stomach never lets me down, and I was absolutely fine.

The scenery is breathtaking, and sometimes you can see both coasts, north and south, at the same time. As well as the road clinging to the side of the mountains, there are rivers gushing over the rocks at the bottom of valleys, tropical deciduous forests and a large flat savannah at a high altitude, known as the Rice Bowl.

There are lots of village settlements along the road, with their hens, goats, pigs and domesticated water buffalo, and their glimpses of Florenese life: church-goers with hymn books on a Sunday morning, a young boy getting a hair-cut from his older brother, four women in sarongs stood washing themselves around a standpipe, an old woman sweeping her front porch in the late afternoon sunshine. We passed pistachio trees and we saw betel nuts. There were villages near coffee plantations with an amazing aroma in the air from the grinding of beans, and markets selling fruit and vegetables.

There are about ten buses that travel along the entire length of the Highway, and these are heavily used. All the ones we saw were full to bursting, with ten to fifteen people sat on the roof. I have no idea how they make their way up some of the steeper stretches of road that we travelled along. There are also many passenger trucks - trucks crammed with wooden benches - which were popular with locals, though they looked impossible to get into.

In the towns there are lots of bemos (minibuses) and ojeks (motorbike + rider) and there are plenty of odd sights on the road - an ojek with four live chickens tied to the handlebars, a bemo with three men hanging out the door and a dead goat on top, and another bemo later, in Maumere, travelling through the pouring rain - there was a man sat cross-legged on the roof by himself with a bucket over his head.

Bajawa (28-30 December)

We stayed in Bajawa with a lady from the Philippines, known to the Philippino volunteers, called Lyn. The family was very hospitable, and the food was lovely. On both evenings of our stay we were able to witness a very widespread Indonesian obsession - karaoke. The list of songs was very comprehensive, and it was fun to be reminded of lots of British hits from the 1990s and earlier!

Bajawa is at the centre of the Ngada region, and the family took us to a traditional Ngada village in the country, called Bena, 20km from Bajawa past the area's biggest volcano, Gunung Inerie.

Bena village was very interesting - it has been a tourist village since 1975, and there are 9 clans with 63 households and 18 main houses. These were scattered around the edge with a number of terraces in the middle. The features on top of the roof, like those in the Manggarai village, have a significant function in terms of the relationship with the spiritual world.

What is distinctive about the Ngada people is the pair of structures that can be found in their villages: the ngadhu and the bhaga. The ngadhu is a bit like a parasol, about 3 metres high, with a carved wooden pole and a thatched 'roof.' The bhaga is like a miniature thatched roof.

Their purpose is to represent the presence of ancestors. The ngadhu is male and the bhaga is female, with each pair linked to one of the village families. Every so often, on instruction from ancestors given in dreams, a new pair of ngadhu and bhaga is remade, with accompanying ceremonies where buffalo are often sacrificed. Whereas the Manggarai people believe themselves to have come from Sumatra, the Ngada believe they came from Java.

The final treat for our time in Bajawa was a trip to the hot springs at Mangaruda. It was raining, and we arrived at about 5pm, when it was just beginning to get dark. As usual, I was charged more than everyone else for being white, but even then it was only about 15p for me, so I was happy to let it go.

The place was slightly odd, with few places to shelter from the rain, and lots of locals looking at us (and especially me) with interest. So it all felt a bit weird, although at this point I must just sing a quick hymn of praise to my sarong. Wonderful things, sarongs, as I discovered during my time in Flores. I bought one just before I went, and their functions are manifold. You can of course just wear them, but they make very effective bed sheets, tablecloths, curtains, portable changing cubicles, and even hiding places.

I had forgotten my swimming trunks, so I made do with a pair of black boxer shorts, and when we were all changed, in we went. It was wonderful! A circular pool about 8 metres across, surrounded by trees and covered by low-hanging branches. The water was lovely and hot - my first bath since November - and there was a point near the centre where the water was bubbling out of the ground.

I could have stayed there a long time, with the rain lightly falling, feeling all lovely and warm. For those of you who have been to Center Parcs, it was a bit like being in a jacuzzi in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, except it was hotter, and this was the real thing!

Then it got better, because the hot water flows out of the pool and down towards a passing stream. At the point where the two meet, the hot water falls over rocks about 3 metres, and you could stand at the point where the two meet, with cold water coming from the left, and hot water pounding against your back, which I did, and it was amazing.

No photos of any of this, but I have since endeavoured to capture the place a bit with a humble pencil drawing.

By the time we left it was completely dark, and we drove home through the thunder and lightening feeling very happy, lucky, and relaxed.
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