Three lakes, three conversations

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
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Trip End Oct 08, 2008


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Friday, May 23, 2008

For once, public transportation seemed to work out without a hitch.  We walked out to the street and within 30 seconds had piled into a bemo (a minivan).  He took us all the way out to the northern bus station.  He didn't overcharge us that much.  We could tell we had arrived at the bus station because several people launched themselves into the moving van, demanded (in a friendly way) where we were going, then grabbed Erin's backpack and brought it towards the bus.  It seemed to be the only bus that looked close to leaving, so we accepted, and left less than 5 minutes later.  We ascended up through the valley, heading inland.  It took about 2 and a half hours to get to Moni.  We knew we were in Moni because a Rastafarian jumped on the bus and took us to his hotel.  We didn't seem to have a choice in the matter.  It was okay because the price was right, the room was nice, and they had a great included breakfast.  Not like Ende.  In Ende we got a small, fluffy piece of chocolate cake.  How is that breakfast?

Sometimes I'm tempted, in the spirit of free enterprise, to shop around a little bit before choosing a hotel.  Often I don't want to stay at a hotel I'm forced to look at.  But all my irritation vanished when I saw his check in book.  We were the first guests to check into his hotel in six days.  Moni was suffering. 

After lunch I took a wander up the road to explore the town.  There is only the one road.  Like Ende, everyone here would greet me as well.  But here the tourism industry was a little more developed.  A lot of these people could have conversations.  And they did.  In fact, they were hard to avoid.

Dorotea was a diminutive middle-aged lady with very good English.  She called out to me from a roadside stall and, being as I didn't have anything else to do, I stopped to chat.  She had a pretty sad story to tell.  

She was a single mother, quite rare for these parts.  She didn't offer the whereabouts of the father.  She didn't give me the impression that he was deceased, however.  Her small boy was running around her feet with a kite.  It was the saddest looking kite I had ever seen.  Essentially it was a tiny piece of trash bag and a string.  His other toy was much more impressive.  It was a liter fuel bottle, cut into the approximation of a car.  It had huge axles that looked like wooden kebab skewers, and giant, mismatched, but generally circular wheels.  She told me he took it everywhere, even "repaired" it when it broke down.  She found her child tiring.  Most kids, they sit still sometimes, she complained.  But he is always moving, running, doing something.  Poor women.  They aren't any cures a hyperactive child out here.  She lives in another town, and she made the trip out here every day to sell ikat (woven cloth) to tourists.  Or at least, she used to when there were tourists.  Now most of her sales are to locals.  Surprisingly, she complained that tourists try to bargain her prices down.  This isn't like Bali, she told me.  She can barely survive as it is.  She wanted to talk, but she decided to inquire, almost hopelessly, if I would be interested in looking at some ikat.  She told me she had travelled to Malaysia, and across a good part of Indonesia as well.  A liter of petrol was 6,000 rupiah, or about 65 cents.  She was afraid it would go up to 7,000 or 8,000 soon.  Prices were rising everywhere.  Towards the end of the conversation she inquired if I wanted to try one of the pomelos she had brought with her to sell.  I gently showed her that I had no money with me (and I didn't).  But she didn't seem to care.  She grabbed one, efficiently hacked it apart with a machete, and gave me a large chunk.  The rest she quickly shared out to the gaggle of people that seemed to be chatting with her and occasionally asking for a translation.  Apparently it was lunch.  The pomelo was delicious.  Not the sweet type that we had had many times before, but sour.  A limelo.  I told her I would come back to get some tomorrow.

I went back to get Erin and while waiting for her wandered into the churchyard behind our hotel.  The church was very large.  While I was looking up at it someone emerged from one of the other buildings and came over to me.  His name was Peter.  He also wanted to chat.  After the usual exchange, he told me that he was a priest in training.  His brother and another man were the only priests at this church.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of three locals leading a huge Catholic congegration in the middle of nowhere.  And it was surprisingly huge.  He told me 1,500 people come to church on Sunday.  I thought he was messing up his numbers.  But no, apparently this church gathers people from all the towns in the area.  They have mass everyday, but only a few people come to those.  He seemed to think this was a social problem.  But they were working on it.  You see, the people are lazy, he told me.  He thought that tourists coming to Moni was a good thing.  But he felt that they didn't know how to "get money from them."  "Some of them do," I said wryly.  He thought that was funny. 

After we talked to Peter we moved down towards the other end of town.  A huge traditional house rose out of the village section.  This was the traditional village of Moni, while we had been staying in the outgrowth of hotels and restaurants stretching up the road.  It turned out that the house was private and we couldn't look at it.  But we did meet Joseph.  Joseph was a guide.  Or he had been a guide.  He would take tourists up to the three colored lakes at Kelimutu or down to the traditional villages in the other direction.  He would also sell ikat.  But there were no tourists anymore.  So now he worked in the rice fields.   We talked for a while until he asked us what we were doing for dinner.  Then he said we should come eat dinner with him.  We accepted. 

If you've been following along, you read about the time where we went to lunch in Hue, Vietnam, and were lead to make a "donation."  So both of us decided on the price we were willing to pay for dinner and donation, prepared ourselves for some emotional blackmail, and returned to Joseph's house a little after dark.  He was waiting for us.

He brought us into a small, dilapidated room attached to the front of a small dwelling.  It seemed to serve as the living room, dining room, and guest bedroom.  There was a tv turned on low at one end of the room.  It was attached to a hodgepodge of mismatched equipment, including an enormous speaker that was handling the sound.  The "table" was a relatively clean space of tiling on the floor.  Joseph talked to us for a little while while his two children stared at us and giggled between themselves.  Erin went over and poked them a little bit but never overcame the barrier.  We were too scary.  Through him we learned a lot more about Moni's history.

To be honest, the terrorist bombings in Bali were a stroke of genius.  There are lots of things wrong with the tourism industry, but it is the biggest economic activity on the planet and takes money from rich countries and puts it into small ones.  Many of the places we've been couldn't survive, or couldn't maintain their traditions and standard of living, without the money from tourism.  All you have to do to economically cripple a nation is drive it's tourists away.  But Bali wasn't the only place affected by the down-turn in tourism.  Everything east of Bali and on the tail-end of the tourist trail was hit too.  The troubles in East Timor effectively blockaded Flores from the east and west.  And while tourism has recovered in Bali, it will be many years before the tourists come back here. 

The worst part is that Moni had only just converted itself to tourism.  The three colored lakes of Kelimutu had only become a tourist desination in the early 90's.  Originally, tourists were boarded in local people's homes.  Then the hotels were built.  Even these filled up.  Moni was booming.  It converted its whole economy to tourism.  And about nine years later, when everything was just coming online, the tourists stopped coming.  Moni and its wonderful people made me sad.  They weren't just poor.  They had seen a way out, savored being a tourist town, and then lost everything again.  And Joseph had returned to the rice fields.

While he had been quite talkative outside, he seemed almost shy inside his house with his family.  He brought in some rice, noodles, and aubergines.  To drink we had boiled water.  He apologized profusely about the simplicity of the food.  He sat down to eat with us, and later his children also got some food.  He told us the price of everything, saying how expensive food was now.  A chicken, almost $10.  The money they earned from selling vegetables from their garden goes towards protein, fish mostly.  He had made sure his honored guests would have some fish in their meal.  You could tell how precious and valuable the fish was from the way he talked about it.  On a plate he brought out three tiny morsels of dried fish.  I ate mine slowly, savoring his gift.

Joseph ran an orphanage.  He was currently in care of 14 children.  The point was to train them to work as what sounded like house servants in Malaysia.  He provided them with clothes, books, and schooling.  He had been in the process of building a schoolroom when tourists stopped coming with donations.  We had met him next to the empty shell that would have housed the school.  It didn't matter much anyways.  He was depending on the tourists to keep giving English lessons to the children.  He showed us a carefully typed and edited letter thanking a woman who had provided monetary support for some of the orphans.  He had cultivated that contact until she had passed away recently. 

His wife, finished making dinner, finally emerged to sit quietly and watch the TV.  Joseph said that he had married very young and had little choice.  He seemed almost embarrassed about her as well.  She smiled once and then turned her attention to the television.  Conversation dwindled until Joseph showed us out into the darkness.  Never once had he asked us for money, or even hinted at it.  We had found a true soul, one who shared for hospitality's sake and nothing else.  He had no hidden agenda, and it was so refreshing. 

We gave him the money we had agreed upon.  At first I thought the proud man was going to refuse.  But we insisted that it was a donation to the orphanage, and that he agreed to.  Next time anyone goes to Flores and is looking to contribute, find Joseph and help him out.  $40-$50 can provide these children with enough supplies for a year.

Anyway, after our conversations in Moni and the huge adventure of travelling across Flores, the three colored lakes of Kelimutu were almost anticlimatic.  We were afraid that the rain would prevent us from seeing them at all.  But luckily, after three days of rain we had a perfect morning.  We decided against going at sunrise, had a nice leisurely breakfast, and then took two motos on a drive up through wonderful scenery to the entrance of the park.  From here it was a short walk to the lookout over the three craters.

Originally the three crater lakes on this mountain were red, white, and blue.  Like cakes of paint.  I would have liked to see that.  But they are also famous because they change colors.  No one is quite sure why it first happened, but some think that when the president first visited in his helicopter in 1983 he stirred up the water with his rotors.  The other lakes have since changed colors as well.  Currently, the most startling lake is a vivid, neon green.  Next to it, and divided by only a low wall,  is a crater with a chocolate mocha brown color.  On the other side is a third lake that is olive (although this one could be mistaken for a dirty lake).  So while the colors are more natural than the original state (except for the green), the whole effect is still quite impressive.  The local people believed that bad people went to the red lake, good people went to the white lake, and in between people went to the blue lake.  We got there just in time for the sun to hit the green and brown, bringing out the brilliant colors.  You couldn't tell the lake was brown until the sun hit it. 

After visiting the craters we walked back down through the beautiful landscape.  We took a lot of photos of rice paddies and the occasional child.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful downhill walk.  We got back to Moni and bought some pomelos from Dorotea like I had promised.  After yesterday I would have given her whatever she asked, but she charge 2,000Rp, a little over 20 cents each.  They were delicious, and Erin complained that we should have gotten more than two.  I doubt we'll ever find the limelos again.

We had our final hop to Maumere the next morning.  We just had to be waiting at the roadside when a bus came by.  We were really lucky, and walked up to the road and right onto a bus within 3 minutes.  The driver's friends seemed to find us amusing.  Everyone here is in love with Obama.  After a relatively easy minibus ride we arrived in out last destination, Maumere.

~Travis
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