Ruteng (23-28 December)
Ruteng, the capital of the Manggarai region, is four hours from Labuanbajo, and home to fellow VSO volunteer Bec.
We stayed at her very large house with two other volunteers, Jo Marie and Jess (Jesus) who travelled to join us from the east of the island. On the day we arrived in Ruteng, two other volunteers also joined us, Festus and Shadrack, who are from Kenya. So for most of our five days in Ruteng there were seven of us. Bec is a great cook, and the Philippinos really know how to cook for Christmas, so there was no shortage of lovely food. In short, there was a real family feeling, which was perfect for Christmas.
Ruteng SLB (school for disabled children) is near Bec's house, and like most others in Flores, it is Catholic.
We started Christmas Eve by going there so that I could have a chat with the Head Sister, and meet some of the deaf children. That was both interesting and enjoyable. Since most disabled children travel some way to get to the SLB, it is common for them to stay in the asrama (dormitory) at the school during term time. Most of the children were back home in their village for Christmas, but there were still some deaf children around and it was good to meet them.
The SLB was set in beautiful grounds, and seemed to be better than those I have seen in Java - much of the teaching is vocational, with children leaving school to become carpenters, tailors, cooks or shop workers. Perhaps there is a sense of love and duty on the part of the Catholic sisters, not found in Java, that makes a difference.
From there we went on to visit Desa Ruteng, which is a traditional Manggarai village.
The houses are set round a circular path of stones, with a raised platform in the middle called a compang, traditionally used for sacrifices. Three of us went to meet the village elder, who at over 90 years old, knows a thing or two about the Manggarai way of life. He has no teeth, and showed us how he makes a paste from leaves and betel nuts using special tools.
Later I found a book about the Manggarai culture, and spent a fascinating few hours reading all about it.
There is a creation myth involving filial sacrifice that establishes a close relationship between humankind and nature, and the building of a house is a particularly significant event because of the wood that is 'stolen' from the forest. There are several sacrifices of hens, goats and buffalo in order to appease the forest spirits and welcome the wood to its new home. At one point the important people of the village 'speak through the chicken,' which sounds a bit messy to me.
Mass on Christmas Eve was very memorable - I had secured a copy of the service beforehand in Bahasa Indonesia, so I spent an hour in the afternoon brushing up on my religious vocabulary!
We entered the Cathedral in a typically Indonesian fashion, with impatient newcomers elbowing their way through the door at the same time as those leaving the previous mass squeezed their way through the same door in the other direction.
The place was packed, but it was a local affair, with girls wearing traditional 'bali belo' hats dancing up the aisle before the priest and procession.
Thanks to our earlier introduction, the priest reserved front row seats for us, which was nice, though I was about two feet taller than most of the people in the church, so I felt a bit conspicuous!
The Philippinos do their celebrating after Mass, on Christmas eve, so there was more lovely food to eat, followed by a secret santa. I was very ready for bed by about 1am, and slept soundly!
My Christmas day was different to any I have had before.
I woke up with Jesus, had breakfast with Jesus, and went riding on the back of Jesus' motorbike. Then I discovered it was Jesus' 50th birthday! The Jesus I'm referring to is, of course, the aforementioned VSO volunteer, and not the Son of God, but it certainly made for a memorable day.
On Christmas day and over the two days that followed, we went out a lot! In fact we were hardly at home, for many of Bec's colleagues had invited us to their house for makan siang (lunch) and makan malam (dinner).
People were so kind.
I don't think I've ever shaken as many hands. You have to shake hands with everybody, in Indonesia, and photographs are also much loved. I can still remember asking Jo if she would take a photo of me and four other vols who were sat next to me (left). In the meantime, everybody else decided they should join us, and the final photo featured six VSO volunteers, Pak Adam (our host), Pak Adam's wife,
Pak Adam's daughter, Pak Adam's daughter's seven friends, and Festus' neighbour's daughter's husband (right)!!
The other thing I ought to tell you about is all the dancing we were doing in Flores. On the evening of Christmas day we went to Ibu Jovita's house. Now Ibu Jovita loves her dancing, and she got a dance instructor along for us. There is a traditional Florenese line dance called the Poco Poco (pronounced 'pocho pocho'), which has one basic step and about 20 different variations.
We had lots of fun doing that, and a couple of other local dances including one called the Jae.
The next evening we were at a village party held in the retirement home for Catholic priests (!) and I did a fine job of leading for one of the dances (which everyone else had forgotten).
It was silly, really - our group of foreigners seemed far more enthusiastic about the local dance than the majority of the locals, but there was one distinguished-looking older gentleman in a black leather jacket who had us all up on the dance floor several times...
On our final full day in Ruteng we hired a bemo (a real luxury, as normally you play to their tune, not the other way round) and went to the village of Pagal to see a French volunteer. Valerie works on VSO's livelihoods programme with an organisation promoting organic farming methods in Pagal.
The organisation's garden was just fabulous, with all sorts of vegetables including chillies, onions, cabbages and peppers, horseradish, sour gourd and aubergines (my favourite).
Valerie's organisation is affiliated with the Catholic Church, and in the nearby seminary we
were very amused to find the seminary's dog, known both as Gubi and Dinyo, sitting in the nativity, which is a favourite look-out of his. When he first settled here, it took the sisters hours to find him! (Potential story for a Christmas sermon there I think!). Valerie says the dog always accompanies pastors from Pagal when they attend ordination services at Ruteng Cathedral!
Before we left Pagal, Valerie gave us some mango crumble, along with delicious coffee - I couldn't believe it, I felt like I was in a Parisian café! Lovely woman.
Flores is a thin island about 350 miles long, with a population of 1.8 million. There are five different cultural groups each with their own language - the Manggarai, the Ngada, the Ende and Lio peoples, the Sikkanese and the Lamaholot. We passed through four of these regions during our 200 mile journey over Christmas, travelling along what is known as the Trans-Flores Highway.