Across Flores

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We finished traveling most of the length of Flores island. This island, flanked on its westerns side by Komodo national park and wild Alor and Salor archipelagos and Timor on its eastern side, is almost 700 km long. We traveled most of the way, from the dusty but quaint harbor town of Labuan Bajo to the dusty tinned roof city of Maumere. The trip was not an easy one.

The trans-Flores highway is anything but. It is a windy road making its way up and down the gorgeous mountains and along the sea. Hundreds of hairpin turns need to be negotiated with a honk of a horn to warn potential oncoming traffic. When two trucks need to pass, one often needs to pull off partway to the side to make room. Potholes are a standard.

Travel is done mostly by public buses, which officially hold 12, or “travels” which are mini-vans that should only seat seven. Most often, the situation is much more cramped, with bags of corn or rice on the ground, four or five people to a bench seat, and an impossibly packed roof with most of the baggage. The roof is tended to by one or two guys who don’t really have a seat but spend the trip either standing in the doorway, hanging on the side of the vehicle, or scrambling all over the roof, often while in motion. Rain or shine, like spiders, these guys are climbing all over the place. One moment, they are hanging out the door, only to disappear on the roof and to descend on the back of the car.

Because the roads are so windy and hilly, a 130km trip takes four to five hours. Four to five cramped, bumpy hours driving down the road. Twice we saw a local bemo (more on these marvelous creations later) in the bushes, being pulled out of the ditch by a truck with twine. This is how we made our way across the island, stopping for a night or two in small towns and villages along the way, to see what life is like and to rest our bones.

Travel in and around town is accomplished either by bemos or ojeks. A bemo is a tiny mini-van, seemingly custom built for the diminutive Indonesian posture. The back is lined with two benches running the length of the van. The ceiling is so low that I have to hunch down. Under the benches are two, three, and sometimes four enormous subwoofers blaring techno, jungle, happy hardcore, or an occasional Christmas carol. The windshield is crammed with stickers and 180 degrees circular mirrors, and a menagerie of stuffed toys makes its home on the dashboard. The actual view is limited to a gap about a foot high. The outside of the van is decorated with elaborate paintjobs accompanied by strange English slogans (“Caution!, you wait for it”), as well as fluorescent colored hub caps and gigantic mud flaps. These creations cruise around town, crammed with passengers, and will take you anywhere you wish to go within city limits, and sometimes a bit beyond, as long as you can wait while they make their circuit in an apparently random fashion. They are also dirt cheap and are probably the most fun form of local transport I have ever seen.

Ojeks are the alternative. They are the ubiquitous small 100cc-125cc motorbikes which pick up passengers on the street. All is good in most cases, but when a hefty man of my size sits on the back with a backpack the size of the driver, the going gets a bit tough. I have not fallen off yet, but at one point I have found myself balancing on my tail bone when the driver accelerated with an inexplicable amount of humph, with my arms and legs flailing to regain my balance and my gigantic backpack hanging on my back. Judging from the loud laughter of the people around, this was an amusing sight.

Flores is wonderful. The landscape is mountainous and it gets quite cool in the central regions. The lush vegetation covers the mountains and valleys and the drives offer fantastic views. Unlike most of Indonesia, it is predominantly catholic, and little rural churches dot the landscape. The people are extremely friendly and welcoming, as in the rest of Indonesia. Most surprising, everyone involved in the tourist industry knows each other. Hanky and Jakobius in western Labuan Bajo, Hans from eastern Maumere, William from Bajawa, Andre in Moni, all knew each other across some 500 plus kilometers. It was quite amusing.

Our trip across the island was fantastic. The beginning was a fantastic five night diving cruise packed with improbably colored vibrant underwater landscapes, gigantic manta rays, strange aquatic critters, enveloping swarms of fish, sharks, komodo dragons, and a sky full of flying foxes. We spent time in various towns, often not doing much besides walking around in the company of kids who want to practice their English. We visited some local villages near Ruteng as well as Bajawa. Sometimes we had no guide, and the conversation over coffee consisted of few English words, few Indonesian words, and a lot of hand waving. We’ve spent a day driving through the country side to find the strange spider-web shaped rice fields around Ruteng, only to be caught in a tremendous downpour on the way back to town. We had a chance to spend an evening with William, our guide, in his home in Bajawa, where we drank his specially flavored arak while talking to his wife and playing with his one year old baby. In the village of Moni we went to Kelimutu, the three impossibly vibrant colored volcanic lakes, where we admired the sights as the sun burnt off the fog and got interviewed for a local travel show. We washed ourselves in the Flores Sea, hotel showers and mandis (containers of water with plastic scoops), pleasantly warm hot springs, and tropical downpours, the latter of which had a habit of surprising us on our motorcycle. The last few days we parked our bodies in a small hotel on an isolated beach to get a break from the travel.

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