Friday, July 31, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

Somewhere around these parts we cross an invisible 'line' where the flora and fauna changes from Asian to Australasian. The people on Flores also look different - less Malay, more Melanesian maybe, with broader noses and wiry hair. It feels like we're a long way from Java. (We are.) The towns are smaller and a little scruffy, but the people seem genuinely friendlier - probably because there are less tourists travelling here. I'd started to feel a bit tired of the journeys here and didn't feel that Indonesia was really 'grabbing' me. This might be because we've been travelling so long now, or that we're only getting out of it what we put into it and it's difficult to motivate ourselves when we're put off by the overcharging and the effects of mass tourism. Thankfully Flores offers enough to revive us, although it's only as we are about to leave the island that we actually find a place nice enough to stay more than a couple of nights. Indonesia seems to have a lot of charmless towns.

The cross-island journey is made easier by a freshly-tarmacced road and the use of travels. A travel is just a minibus or large car, which offers greater speed and more comfort than a normal bus. They are used by locals as well as tourists and are especially good for enjoying the views as the roads on Flores twist and climb over high passes and ridges, with rice terraces and volcanoes, coffee trees and sweeping coastal bays. The travels are often driven by young men with poor taste in music. Appropiately for a volcanic island, they all appear to chain smoke. Windscreens are also decorated with bright cuddly toys and 'trophy' wing-mirrors - each one presumably marks the demise of a poor unlucky motorcyclist bumped off the road. We almost leave the road one day as a combination of these factors come into play. Our driver is busy trying to find another lousy tune on his cd player, one hand on the wheel and fag in hand, overtaking a motorcyclist, when the rainbow-coloured stuffed caterpillar stuck to the top of his windscreen comes unstuck and obscures his view. We can see our own horrified faces aghast reflected in the multiple mirrors as we swerve towards the abyss.

From Bajawa we visit a couple of villages with Judith and Kent where traditional beliefs and customs are still followed, despite the spread of Christianity on the island. The houses are laid out in two facing rows, some decorated with carvings and buffalo horns (these reflect the status of the household) and in the middle are flat terraces with graves, crucifixes, standing stones and representations of male and female deities. Piles of freshly picked coffee and cacao are sitting out to dry. The villagers are used to tourists coming to take a look and some are selling vanilla pods and ikat weaving. At the end of our day trip we bathe at the junction of two rivers, one coming from a hot spring. It's the first hot water we've had for some time and it's lovely.

We spend a night in Ruteng to break the onward journey. I get a haircut while Gayle watches 'Titanic' in the restaurant where we have a late lunch. I learn from a man at the hotel that there's been bombs at two hotels in Jakarta. He seems less upset about the bombing itself than the fact that Manchester United have now cancelled their visit. Funny old place, Ruteng. Next morning we are picked up by another travel doing the rounds of the hotels looking for punters. We stop for two nights in Ende although there's no real reason to. Down at the seafront there's a sorry looking market with a cheerful bunch of fishermen and vendors selling their bits and pieces. A restaurant advertises its dishes with pictures of a pig and a dog on its awning. In one shop I buy new batteries. The man behind the counter advises me to take the Sanyo over the Sony. They are priced the same - what's the difference? The Sony ones are fake, he says. Everywhere we walk people shout out the all-too familiar greeting "Hello mister! Where are you going?" Big grins all round. Not much happens in Ende.

Another twisty road leads on to Moni from where we can visit the volcanic lakes of Kelimutu. It's one of those places that everyone visits on their way across the island, and early the next morning we can see why - three huge crater lakes at the top of the mountain in different hues. There are wonderful views and the surrounding landscape is green and lush. On our walk down we pass towering tree ferns and coffee bushes.

Our last week on Flores is spent at a lovely little guesthouse on the north coast, with just three stilted bungalows. Here we have a good time with Stephane and Marine, two French 'routards' who we first met back in Bajawa. They too want to rest up and Wodong Beach is one of those places where you can. The beach itself is shallow and black with volcanic sand, but the water is calm, the view out to the islands is great, and the guesthouse is peaceful. Well, almost. Most mornings the cockerels get rather vocal but they quieten down after seven. There's another French couple, Davide and Emmanuelle, and at dinner it's almost possible to imagine we are silent extras in a French film. Marine has a great laugh - reminds me of Sid James. A couple of times we hire a boat to go snorkelling off some of the islands - the water is crystal clear and there's coral reefs that just drop away. Even I finally get into the water, it looks so inviting. We both feel refreshed when we eventually leave - possibly from the ambience here but certainly from the company of Marine and Stephane, who's enthusiasm for travelling and for places they have been is quite infectious.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

East of Bali

Nusa Tenggara is the collective name for the islands stretching east of Bali. We head straight to Gili Meno, a tiny island off Lombok, where Gayle had been on her previous trip here about 18 years ago. It is one of three tiny islands that are now at different stages of tourist development. Meno is the quieter island: no full-moon parties or booming sound systems, except for the mosque, the only vehicles are horse drawn buggies and the greatest disturbance is the chorus of cockerels just before daybreak. We notice the cockerels more because we are staying in a stilted bungalow in the village and it sometimes sounds like their favourite spot. As a result, we actually catch a couple of sunrises during our 12-day stay. The island is the perfect place to recover from our travels thus far in Indonesia and prime us for the run to East Timor. Needless to say there is lots of sunbathing, reading, beachcombing and swimming. It might not be the perfect beach place, but it's one of the best we've found so far. We meet here Chris and his son Craig, from Newcastle, who are on a diving holiday and we meet up each evening to chew the fat and eat as well, accompanied by some very welcome duty-free vodka and tonics. They're great company and a good laugh. Chicken curry and rice hasn't tasted so good in ages, as Gayle and Craig will testify. During the day we can enjoy the white sandy beach, Gayle goes snorkelling with Chris and Craig, or there's the circumperambulation (?!) of the island. The time flies by too quickly. Gayle celebrates her 40th birthday - Chris and Craig rustle up some candles. We eventually say our fond farewells to our new friends, who are kindly carrying a parcel home for us, and who also donate a snorkelling mask to our travel kit.

We don't dither on Lombok but catch a luxurious air-conditioned bus all the way to the end of Sumbawa. Now this is the way to go - legroom for a basketball player, no loud Indo pop to keep us awake (it's a night bus) and just before sundown a pleasant two hour ferry across to Sumbawa. The reality comes at 3.30 am when the bus turfs us out short of our destination and we have to cram into the usual rusty tin-can minibus for the final two hours. But first we have to wait for two hours. There's a few other westerners going this way, including Judith and Kent, a friendly Canadian couple who are also heading to East Timor. Good company for the next stage which is an all-day ferry ride over to Flores. The weather is good as we pass by the infamous Komodo island, too far off to catch sight of those big flabby lizards. At last we arrive and find a 'cheap' hotel (it's high season and somewhat overpriced) and it feels good to shower and eat a good square meal.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

(I don't want to go to) Kuta

It's easy to love and loathe Ubud at the same time. We have a comfortable room in a friendly little guesthouse on the edge of the rice paddies. The place used to be a village, or a collection of villages and is now becoming a town. "Tourist Central" is how it's been described to us, and there are echoes of Thamel in Kathmandu. But step off the main roads and you can find yourself walking around a sleepy kampung, or amongst rice paddies. Not for long though. There's always an art gallery just around the corner. Balinese art seems to have evolved into the mass production of modern art, all of it looking rather similar. There are other more traditional arts and crafts such as stone and wood-carving, and these also seem to be mass-produced for the tourists. It's everywhere. Tucked away on a quiet lane we find a shop promoting the weaving of women from all the islands. It's a unique Fair Trade place and those involved have worked hard to revive traditional weaving techniques and local styles, particularly of ikat.

What's most striking and visible here are the daily rituals of the mainly Hindu population. Balinese Hinduism is quite different to the original Indian variety. It was only brought to the island in the 14th century by a kingdom fleeing a Muslim conqueror in Java. The religion was incorporated with the already strong animistic practices of the Balinese. And so ancestor and spirit worship fits alongside the worship of the Hindu trinity of gods. In addition, there is a single overarching god. Every building and every village seems to have a shrine or collection of shrines, where offerings are made and incense lit daily. The shrines don't feature any particular god, and are empty, although occasionally we see a Ganesh perched at a doorstep, or on a ledge. In front of every door and gateway are the tell-tale offerings of rice and flowers and incense sticks. It's the first time that I comprehend that Indonesia is a country made up of many different peoples and cultures.
One thing that remains constant is nasi campur (pronounced champur). This might just be the national dish, although it's a close run thing with nasi goreng. The latter is just fried rice with a fried egg, whereas nasi campur is plain rice with a selection of different meat and vegetable dishes. Sometimes you can get chicken, jackfruit curry, greens, and fried anchovies, all topped with fried peanuts, coconut and chilli. It's become our favourite dish and is usually available everywhere we go.

We don't attend any of the 'cultural evenings' in Ubud of dance and music, put off by the touts pushing tickets - there are perhaps five events each evening, some advertising 'fire dance'. We don't think we have the patience for a two hour show. Instead we shove off south and finally arrive in Kuta, a place we've been dreading. It's not so awful - just a very large beach resort for package holiday makers and surfers alike. Blackpool's worse. The beach is nothing special, in fact disappearing under the onslaught of big waves. And it's the waves that attract the surfers. We have come to see Greg, our friend who we last met in Varanasi. He lives here, and like a true Californian, loves the surf. Kuta has expanded considerably since he first came here and it's become more built up with shops and swish restaurants, bars, clubs and one large traffic jam. Height restrictions have stopped the building getting out of hand, but the place is spreading with development. The place is full of Aussies on holiday and some of the local touts greet us with a "mate" tagged on. We are very happy to catch up with Greg, who has just returned from the States, and we have a couple of nice evenings with him. One night he takes us one at a time on the back of his motorbike to eat. I think it's fair to say he cannot drive like this in the States. When it's time to get off I have to peel my fingers off the pillion I've been gripping. Gayle is treated to a short ride up on the pavements mid-journey. You can pay to ride pillion like this with motorcyclists, called ojeks. I swear after this that I will never go near one.

Greg's charms and hospitality can't hold us in Kuta though and we want to move on. We are about to hunt down a bemo, a local minibus to take us to the bus terminal when we pass a travel agent offering private transport for tourists. We finally crack. We pay what feels like a large sum but probably isn't for a transfer out of Kuta and off Bali by boat to the Gillis - small islands just off the north west coast of Lombok. We're in a rush to get away and find a quiet place.......