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.

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