Interminable Ferries and Magical Lakes

Trip Start May 23, 2011
Trip End Aug 17, 2011

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Silvester Homestay

Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Thursday, June 30, 2011

In a country of 17,000 islands, travel by boat is inevitable. We thought that traveling to Flores by ferry would be interesting, and it certainly was! We paid an extra dollar to be in the "fancy" section, which meant there were seats with cushions. In the room behind us, the next class down had hard plastic seats and blaring music. But right from the start I wished we had saved the dollar - the Economy class looked way more fun. The upstairs sections were stuffy and full of cigarette smoke. Downstairs, a refreshing breeze blew over the open platform that served as Economy class. Families laid out their bamboo mats and sleeping pads, socializing and eating by the huge open windows. It had the atmosphere of a holiday picnic. They shared the space with a few rows of motorcycles, a horse, and a rooster, but I still wondered why so many people preferred the "better" tickets.

Our 4pm ferry took off at 6pm, with an estimated travel time of ten hours. Fifteen hours later, after a restless night splayed out on the seats (Shen) and a rented floor mat (me), we arrived at the Flores harbor of Ende. I went downstairs to watch our arrival and quickly saw why people preferred the upstairs rooms: the Economy class floor was soaking wet from bow to stern. 

Disembarking was pure chaos. The platform lurched from side to side, apparently not connected to the dock in any way. We staggered off the boat while throngs of people pushed in the opposite direction, boarding the ferry for its next port of call. We were accosted immediately, and in close quarters, by men offering motorcycle rides to town. We pushed past the crowd to the parking lot, where we found a bemo (minivan for local transport) that we shared with a family. I was grateful for the van - in many cases, motorcycles are the only option, but with our big backpacks on they are neither comfortable nor particularly safe.

By the time we arrived in Moni we had spent 22 hours in transport (which is, by the way, approximately the time it took us to fly from DC to Bali). Moni was a wonderful place to land. It's a small, quiet mountain town surrounded by rice paddies and other villages. The gorgeous scenery and inexpensive lodging made it perfect for a few days of recovery. We walked around quite a bit, wandering through villages and talking to people. We also met a few other travelers. Bali is chock full of them, mostly (forgive me) drunk Australians; In ten days on Sumba, on the other hand, we saw only one. Moni was a nice in-between. Everyone we met was traveling for at least two months, so they all had interesting stories and advice for us.

On our second morning, we woke up at 4:30 for the sunrise journey to Kelimutu National Park. The focus of Kelimutu is three volcanic lakes, the remnants of collapsed volcanic peaks. The lakes change color over the course of the year because of changes in mineral composition. The largest lake is always a brilliant turquoise, but the other two shift between various shades of red, brown, and black. During our visit, though, the one that is normally reddish was a deep sea-green. The third was entirely covered by a blanket of fog when we arrived, but revealed its brown hue by the time we left.

We were lucky to have a clear sky for sunrise, but it quickly clouded over. We wanted to see the lakes in sunlight, when they seem to glow, so we settled in at "Inspiration Point," from which you can see all three. With the sun still low on the horizon and no trees to buffer the wind, it was cold. A few enterprising men carry hot water up in thermoses every morning and sell tea, coffee, and instant noodles, so we wrapped ourselves up in a blanket and took advantage of that. (We were a bit disconcerted to notice, hours later, that they picked the used plastic forks out of the trash for use with the next round of tourists).

Most people spend an hour or two at the lakes before heading down, so over more than four hours at the top, we saw several rounds of people. That aspect was fun, too. There is a definite pattern: only the foreigners come up for sunrise. As they filter out, Indonesian tourists from other islands start to arrive. Only late in the afternoon do local people show up. Tradition has it that the souls of the deceased come to Kelimutu, and they are sent to the different lakes depending on their age and their comportment in life. I don't know if those beliefs still hold, but it's neat that locals still make the pilgrimage up there. 

On the way down, we decided to forgo the shortcut through the villages, since we had walked that trail the day before. Bad idea! We didn't realize how much shorter the shortcut made it. Our walk down was a steep four hours on hard pavement, sharing the backpack. It might have been enjoyable on a trail, but the pavement was killing our feet by about hour three. Wouldn't you know it: after weeks of people yelling, "transport!" at us every other minute, when we actually needed it, it was nowhere to be found. With the early wake-up call and the long walk, we were pretty much dead for the rest of the day. We were tired, but it was a good tired!

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