No room at the inn...

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Monday, September 12, 2005

After an unforgettable two days cruising Komodo and Rinca aboard 'Mitra Bajo' in the company of two fellow South Africans, we docked back at Labuanbajo in the mid-afternoon of Saturday 10 September. Though we were considering doing a dive or two in the area (the seas off the west coast of Flores offer the chance to spot manta rays and other pelagic species), we decided to make our way east across the island.

We said goodbye to Tasha and Suzaan, and enquired at the harbour office about a bus to Ruteng (a town in the hills about four hours from Labuanbajo). We were told that the afternoon bus leaves from an out-of-town bus terminal, and so we hopped aboard two motorbike taxis ('ojeks') who sped down winding country roads to get us there in time. We had no idea how far it was... it turned out to be about 20mins on the motorbikes, way out of town! Phew, we piled onto the already crowded bus just in time!

Bus travel in Flores is an experience, to say the least. The buses are basic 18 seater Mitsubishi Colts, but most of the time they are totally overloaded - folks crammed onto the narrow benches, a few more standing or hanging out the door, and a clutch of young men on the roof rack. Luggage items tied on the roof usually include baskets of vegetables, cages with live chickens and a live pig/goat or two... and of course our two backpacks! Unless you sit by the window or door, fresh air inside the bus is a luxury, especially once all the male passengers start to light up their ciggies five minutes into the ride. Yes, Indonesian men all smoke heavily, and no smoking signs are disregarded as a rule.

As the bus wound its way into the mountainous interior, the arid coastal hills around Labuangbajo gave way to lush green slopes clad in forests and rice paddies. We found the contrast with the dry, rocky coast quite stunning. Small villages dotted the rural landscape. At about 8.30pm we reached the mountain town of Ruteng, situated on the slopes of Gunung Ranaka, Flores' highest volcano. The bus dropped us off at our choice of hotel.... ah, I forgot to mention this wonderful plus-point of buses on Flores - they drop you at the door of your home/hotel. However, this door-to-door service also means that a bus departing from somewhere might spend up to an hour cruising in circles around the town, picking up passengers and goods. Don't expect to get away on time....

The hotel turned out to be full, as was every other lodging in town... we were unaware of the fact that an island-wide sports festival called 'Pordafta' - the Olympics of Flores - was being held in Ruteng that week. There was literally no room anywhere, and it was too late to move on to the next town. However, at the Hotel Sindha, the proprietor offered us the spare room at his home, which we gratefully accepted.

We spent two nights at the home of Stefanus, Veronica and their 18-month-old son Luis. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience - we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the family, and it gave us an insight into daily life on the island (though it is fair to say that Stefanus and his family, being relatively well-off, are not representative of the average Flores farming family). Most of all, it gave us the confidence to use what basic Indonesian we had, to mingle with the locals and to chat to people freely (and not be suspicious of their motives). On Flores and the islands further east, tourists are still a relatively uncommon sight, and the locals love asking you questions and talking about their own lives. We really came to enjoy these random conversations with strangers, just walking along and stopping to talk to anyone who asked us a question.

Our time at Stefanus' home in Ruteng was also interesting from a cultural point of view. The island is Catholic (the exception in a mainly Muslim and Hindu country) and the trappings of the faith are everywhere - large cathedrals dominate the towns, the dead are buried in prominent, tiled tombs and the men sport names like Franciscus, Petrus, Johannes... and Stefanus, of course, in whose lounge a large cross and picture of the Virgin Mary took pride of place.

Our host was a very busy man...beteen running his hotel, packed to the rafters with visiting sport teams, he attended quite a few First Communion parties on the Sunday (that particular day, everyone in the town seemed to have at least five parties to go to). Yet he took time to give us some ideas for sights in the area and help us plan our onward travel. He phoned the ferry office in Labuanbajo for us, and booked our seats on the next bus (we overheard the words 'front seat' during this phone call, but unfortunately these VIP seats were booked already!)

On Sunday morning, after breakfast with the family, we took a bemo to the nearby village of Cancar, where one can look down on an unusual landscape of spiderweb-shaped rice paddies from a small hill in the town. We found the footpath up the hill with a little help from a local man, who accompanied us and showed us the best spots from which to look down into the valley. It's a pretty amazing sight... giant spiderwebs of green. Their origin is interesting. Apparently the Manggarai people, who inhabit this region, traditionally built their villages in a circular layout, and the land of each family would radiate out from behind their hut. The terracing required for rice cultivation would intersect these radial dividing lines. So, with the village at the centre no longer there, the rice fields resemble a spider's web.

In the afternoon, we walked up a hill called Concorro, on the outskirts of Ruteng. The views from here over the town, the surrounding countryside and across to Gunung Ranaka are lovely. Unfornutately the summit of the volcano was obscured by clouds, but we wandered along and enjoyed the company of a friendly young man who joined us for the walk. His story is one we would hear time and again from bright young people on Flores and Lembata. He had started studying in Maumere but could not continue his studies because his family could not afford it. Many children are unable to attend high school for financial reasons. In a part of the world where money is tight and school fees are charged, many clever kids never get the chance to fulfill their potential.

Later in the afternoon, having decided to take in some of the Pordafta sporting events in town, we accompanied Stefanus's driver to the large sport stadium on the slopes of the mountain, where the football matches were being played (other events included tennis and the great Indonesian favourite, volleyball). It was super fun watching the buzz as young people and families came and went, and supporters of the various regional teams sang and cheered loudly. Later, when it started raining, folks crammed into the covered grandstand or grabbed some of the colourful flags (decorating the pavilions) to shelter under.

In the evening, Stefanus's brother, niece, her boyfriend and a few other family members came for a visit, and we were invited to join them. It was an odd, rather formal affair, with men sitting in the smart lounge sipping beer and exchanging the odd word, and women next door in the living room, chatting and giggling. I sat with the boys (and the beer). Things seemed pretty tense among the men and one could only assume they did not get on that well. A delicious meal was served, the family left early, and Stefanus relaxed. We stayed up and chatted for quite a while, and he made us promise that we would come and stay again when we passed through on our way back to Labuanbajo. Early the next morning, the bus collected us for our journey east to the town of Moni (base for exploring Kelimutu).
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