Flores #1 – Island of a Thousand Shades of Green

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September 30 2010
Well, a first for us, here we are ensconced in a nunnery in the heart of Flores at Ruteng. This is the first truly modern, clean bathroom we have seen so far, and our tiny cell is spotless. We slept under a crucifix last night and awoke to hear the patter of flip flops on the steps outside as legions of what we take to be novices in shapeless grey tunics began scrubbing the place within an inch of its life. Have never seen anyone scrub a drainage ditch before, have now though! We left Ende, a steamingly hot port city after one night and proceeded along the most beautiful green coastline until we began to climb to the small town of Bajawa, ringed by volcanoes. At the altitude of 1200 metres, I had to peel off my sweaty clothes from Ende and climb into long pants and my fleece jacket to take in the stunning views from the terrace of our oddly castle-like hotel. Flores was named by the Portuguese who stumbled on it in the 1600’s and were as stunned by its sumptuous green foliage as tourists are today. Many tourists (and there are quite a few around, we are no longer such oddities) hire a car and driver to take them from end to end on the trans Flores “highway” a narrow, twisting route with many gorgeous views. This is an expensive, and to our minds, limiting option however, as we prefer to puddle along at our own pace. Fortunately, the “Travel” vans operate here too so we can get quite comfortably from place to place.

Bajawa is a very interesting centre for visiting villages of the Ngada people, one of the few matrilineal societies in the world, apparently, and the only one in Indonesia. Flores people are small but fairly stocky, with very dark skin and wild bushes of black curls. They look more Micronesian than the Indonesians of the western islands. We were fortunate to be able to attend a huge weekly market 41 kilometres outside of Bajawa in a village called Boawe, on Wednesday. It was the usual mass conglomeration of little stalls selling everything under the sun, from light bulbs to prescription medicines to fruits and vegetables to pigs, dogs, chickens, goats, and cattle. We love to wander in those places and there we did attract a fair amount of attention. One highlight of the affair was a medicine seller who was hard to miss because of his extremely loud microphone through which he was giving his spiel. He was sitting on a blanket, surrounded by anatomical depictions of various parts of the body, like the skeletal system, the circulation, the digestive tract, the sinuses of the face, etc. As he talked he kept indicating various areas of potential difficulty with a pointer, with the bones and the liver seeming to figure prominently. He then placed a cup and saucer in front of himself, into which he emptied a brown powder. Next he placed a spoonful of each of two kinds of white powder from unmarked bottles. Then he opened a packet of the medicine he was selling and added that, then he opened a capsule of another medication and that joined the mix. He had a large crowd hanging on his every word. Adding liquid from a bottle, he made a loud exclamation, at which point the whole noxious mixture began to bubble wildly and erupt from the cup like lava from a volcano. (Some of you who have done science experiments in elementary school may recognize the process.) An audible gasp rose from the crowd and a few people rushed forward to buy little plastic packets containing the two medications. At this point I turned to the guide we had hired from our hotel to show us villages for a couple of days and asked him what had transpired. So fascinated was he by the spectacle that he could scarcely tear himself away to tell me. Apparently the two powders that had gone in first were strong poisons, like the ones that cause people to be sick, and the two medications had battled with them and won, hence the eruption. He totally believed the whole thing. Doug reckons that a few demonstrations like that in the office might convince people to comply with their courses of medication better than the usual logical explanations, which are just as much hocus pocus to many people.

Another table held piles and piles of single doses of medications. This is a very common sight in markets. People can buy single pills of Ampicillin, various pain medications, flu remedies and some truly bizarre things like anti depressants and theophylline (used for asthma) many of which are very dangerous if used improperly, and generally one dose of anything is using something improperly. Wonder why drug resistant bugs are on the rise? William, the guide, began combing through this motley mess to find something for his back pain. Evidently he had fallen at the end of a 9 hour trek some time before and ever since had terrible sciatic pain. Doug convinced him that the sinus medications were not the thing, and we got him to buy some acetimenophen. Later we gave him a bunch of our ibuprofen with strict instructions about the dosage. He was very afraid the Tylenol might make him dizzy, but we convinced him to take a couple of doses the next day when we went on a very long and hot hike between a number of villages and he was in obvious pain, especially on the down slopes. Oddly, it did make him rather giddy — whether it was just relief that his pain was less or possibly when you have never taken much medication it makes you react oddly… we weren’t sure but he was much more humorous after the meds than before.

Before I leave the market, I just have to tell you about a loaded bemo (small vans that ply the roads picking up passengers) we saw. The dog lovers among you may find this disquieting. As we left the market, looking for our bemo, we spied one that was festooned on three sides with what we estimate to be at least 1000 chickens suspended by the legs from a rope strung around the perimeter of the roof. Live chickens, I must emphasize, all produce is generally bought live the better to keep it fresh on the way home. On top of the bemo, on the roof rack were tethered nine goats, and on the roof in front, tied to the roof rack were five dogs. The dogs were not taking it well at all, and I could not imagine how they would reach their destinations without strangling themselves. The idea must have been to get them home alive as they weren’t fat enough to eat in their current state. It was hard to look. The goats phlegmatically chewed their cuds and gave the struggling dogs supercilious looks from the sides of their eyes from time to time. The piece de resistance however, was the 400 pound pig, hog tied, as they say, which was then loaded by several men into the back seat of the bemo, screaming and struggling all the while. Then they tossed in several immense bags of rice or some such, and invited the owners of all this produce to climb inside. These bemos are really small, some sat on the bags, but the really lucky ones had to sit on the pig. Off they went, after inviting us to join them which we declined. We passed them later, broken down at the side of the road (overloading no doubt). About half the chickens and 3 of the dogs were gone by that point, not sure about the pig…

The villages in this area are completely different from those in Sumba. Still with thatched roofs, though not as high as in Sumba nor as oddly shaped, but built of wood rather than bamboo. The male and female clan symbols stand in the open square surrounded by the huts. This island is much more prosperous than Sumba and the villages reflect that, they are also surprisingly swept and clean. William explained the traditional animist beliefs that underpin the ceremonies which are such a huge part of life here. Most of them are concerned with death and respect to the ancestors, though weddings and house raisings are also very important. Brides do not have to be paid for here, as in Sumba, since being a matrilineal society, the husband moves in with the girl’s family. Apparently grooms are free…Again the tombs are of prime importance, though they are much smaller than on Sumba, and they are generally right outside the door of the house so that they can be tended daily. Interestingly, since all the people in these villages are Catholic, the tombs are also decorated with Catholic religious icons. It seems to be a seamless juxtaposition according to William who was at great pains to make us understand that the information about the traditional culture and religion was not just some sort of interesting lore, but was literally the truth and the traditional practices had to be adhered to or disaster would surely befall the villages. Always interesting to talk to these guides, talk about a foot in two cultures, William, with his pony tail, skin tight cut offs, hiking boots donated by a tourist, and his good English, is still a village boy with strong traditional beliefs and little knowledge of the world outside aside from the skewed views brought by tourists he guides. Without our guides we could access some of the villages (though not the ones we walked to with William or the rather aggressive ones in west Sumba) but we would just see them, not understand the symbolism of the configuration of the village, the carvings on the tombs, the sacrificial places and so on. The dead tree that figures prominently in every west Sumban village would be just a tree, if we did not understand that in former times the severed heads of the enemies were hung there and they are such sacred places that they are now used only for very special sacrifices. We had a lovely time there and enjoyed the cool evenings on our gusty terrace watching the sun set behind the volcano. After a few days we took the Travel on to Ruteng, another hill town. The road took hair pin bend after hair pin bend down to the sea and the heat and then repeated the process to get us into the next hill top area with different volcanoes to look at. We met a young Dutch couple when we got to the nunnery last night (since the nunnery rooms were full, the nun in charge kindly put the Dutch couple up in the boarding school on the grounds, we have to call ahead for rooms here, there are many of these people in the cars snapping up the good hotels, of which there are few). We took a long walk with them this morning up a nearby hill to a Catholic shrine with fantastic views of the area. To get back we took a short cut through the air strip which made the Dutch very nervous for some reason, but didn’t seem to worry the cows and small boys who were also wandering around out there. These kids are both pediatric residents in Amsterdam. Emily and Rob will be interested to know they have finished their training with NO debt as med school costs the same as any other program and the fees are very low in Holland. However it has taken Vinna, the girl, 3 ½ years to get into a residency, during which time she has worked in a hospital as a pediatric resident, been paid, but the time has not counted towards her qualification. No waiting to get into med school initially however.

We’re off to Labuanbajo tomorrow, which is at the coast and where we will spend some time, hopefully getting in some snorkelling at offshore islands and figuring out where we can fly from here. The kids tell us there is good internet there and I have booked what sounds like a nice guesthouse so we are hoping for the best!

Hope all are well, please keep in touch whenever you possibly can spare a minute for us lonely travelers. Love to all, C&D

PS I am sending this from Labuanbajo, a steamy, filthy little port town on the east coast of Flores — touted as the next big thing in tourism, can’t see it unless they clean up the town a bit. We have a lovely gueshouse high on the hill overlooking the town and the very picturesque harbour with all manner of boats at anchor, all looks very postcard like from up there. We can watch the sun set over the harbour as we sip our evening Bintang. A Dutch guy who has been here for years and has married an Indonesian runs the place, and somehow has taught them how to clean a bathroom. Aside from the nuns, a “foreign” concept here. Will add another installment soon, we went to Rinca to view Komodo dragons yesterday, and out to a Robinson Crusoe style island for a couple of days of snorkeling. (Sue the fins are great!) We’ve made plane bookings for next week – through Denpasar to Makassar on Sulawesi. (Oct 12)

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