From Ruteng to Bajawa, the next inland town, and the Ngada traditional villages, and then to Ende and Wolotope on the south coast
The road to Bajawa goes through similar country side, wooded hills, occasional giant bananas, and the kapok trees, weird and white fluffy material hanging from the branches, ready to be put in pillows and whatever else needs soft filling. Before Bajawa, we dropped briefly down to sea level, at Aimere, the center of Arak processing. Arak is the distillation from palm wine, a rather basic process that is carried out in everybody’s backyard, it seems, and involves a boiler, a bamboo plumbing system that gradually drops down again, and a plastic water bottle to catch the liquor at the end. I have tried it, it is revolting. Past Aimere we got back into the mountains, with splendid views over Gunung Inerie, another one of the distinct volcanoes that typifies Flores and much of Indonesia, this one 2245 m high.
A short drive north of Bajawa is Soa, with its hot sulfurous springs – not surprising in such volcano-rich country, and very timely as well, as the standard of hotels is rapidly dropping, from an already low base. In Labuanbaju there was a promising looking shower head, only the shower itself did not work, in Ruteng I had the VIP room with hot water all right, but no toilet flush, and here in Bajawa it is fully back to basics, with a cold – very cold – shower only, so the chance to splash around in a hot pool was welcome indeed, even though everything, the entire countryside, smells sulphur.
An interesting aspect in this area is that people bury their dead close-by, something I have seen before, but never as striking as here. Grandpa on the verandah, and other relatives pontifically in the front garden, complete with tiled graves and sun shades. This theme would come back even more strikingly in the traditional Ngada villages I was to visit the next day.
Artefacts: Not being very touristic, Flores does not have a lot of shops selling artifacts. I had found one in Labuanbaju, and promptly purchased a mask, sculpture and some other stuff, and I was pleasantly surprised to find another such shop in Bajawa, near the colourful and busy market. The shop was mostly selling ikats, the local weavings, but also had a selection of both old and old-looking – but in reality not so old – wooden and stone sculptures. The stone was volcanic rock, pretty soft and not difficult to carve, the wooden collection was varied. Sadly, many of the wooden figurines were badly affected by termites, to the extent that the shelf on which many were laying was covered in saw dust, and whenever you would pick up a piece, more dust would fall down. I suspect that some pieces will be gone completely in a matter of weeks, putting more doubts around the owner’s initial claims that all his pieces are very, very old, as they will invariably be replaced by other ‘old items’. Nevertheless, I managed to find some interesting additions to our collection of ethnic rubbish, and – equally important – managed to negotiate the owner down to a more reasonable level than his starting price, which somehow always seems to be 1 million for the first piece (I had the same experience in Labuanbaju). Part of my argument was ‘better sell it now to me than have it disappear in the next few weeks from termites’. Of course, this little acquisition came on the heels of an earlier purchase in Labuanbaju, forcing me to buy another bag to transport all of this home.
Ngada villages have a large central plaza with male and female ancestor worshipping symbols, the so-called Ngadhu, a carved totem pole with an umbrella-like thatched roof, and the Bhaga, a miniature hut on stilts, and with tall-roofed houses surrounding the plaza. There is a pair of Ngadhu and Bhaga for each clan in the village, and the square is further adorned with altars, and megaliths, representing ancestor graves.
Many of these villages still have thatched roofs. Only in Langa, the village closest to Bajawa, and perhaps most developed because its proximity to Bajawa, the roofs of its ‘traditional’ houses made of corrugated iron – but still constructed in such a way that the tall roof was evident, with an addition that must cost a significant amount of extra money – an clear indication that traditional ways of live are still very much taken seriously, here.
The next villages, Bela, Lobu and Bena, were more authentic, with tall thatched roof houses, decorated individually with spokes and with the male and female symbols, and occasionally with solar panels – progress is unstoppable. The verandahs show the number of buffalos killed by the family, from the horns, and the number of pigs, from their jaws, and are also used to display the traditional weavings, ikats, a major source of income. Especially Bena was most impressive, built on several levels, with a total of nine clans represented on the plaza; as I was early, the houses had not yet been transformed into full size ikat showrooms, something that does happen on occasion, no doubt related to tourist density. Another income source is the voluntary contribution of visitors, a responsibility pressed upon the casual tourist as soon as you enter the village and are asked to sign the visitors book – which lists all the previous contributions. A more disappointing result of tourism is that in these villages I saw, for the first time, children begging. Where everywhere I traveled children are playful and curious about the foreigner, laughing and enquiring about your name, where you come from and other standard conversation topics, in Lobu a couple of kids asked, with a solemn, miserable look on their faces, for bonbon, pen and money.
From Bena I walked along the slopes of Guning Inerie, to Tololelo, another village an hour further, and then down to Gurasina – a mistake, as this meant that the next stretch, back to Bena, was now going to be solidly uphill, on a black tarmac road without any shade at around midday. Some R&R this was, indeed!! The hardship was somewhat alleviated by all the friendly people along the road, working in the fields, who all needed to know what I was doing here, where I came from and where I was going to – these are also the traditional Indonesian greetings. Having learned the local word for good bye, molo, was an instant hit, time and again. So far east, many people have distinct Melanesian looks, curly hair, very much like the people in PNG and not very pretty – unlike the standard Indonesian looks, which are often stunningly beautiful. My guide, Dus, was a friendly local chap who spoke reasonable English. It was only afterwards, when he asked me for my address so he could write to me, that I realized how primitive this part of Indonesia still is: internet had not yet penetrated here, and Dus does not have an email account.
The last Ngada village I visited was Wogo, on the way to Ende, a slightly more impoverished version of the earlier villages. What also became obvious, along the road, was that many of the ancestor symbols were not limited to the village square, they were also prominent in front of individual houses. In fact, they were everywhere!
Towards Ende one gets an ever closer look at one of Flores’ other volcanoes, Gunung Ambulombu. But for the rest the scenery is not spectacular, until reaching the coast again, somewhere ahead of Ende. Most of the beach here is black, no doubt thanks to previous activity from Ambulombu, but in places there are also scores of blue pebbles – aptly called blue stone beach, well rounded from water action, and actively being exploited by local workmen, and women, who are busily sorting the stones by size for selling; within a few years there will be no more blue stone beach, I think, and one of Flores’ tourist attractions, however minor, will have disappeared.
Ende was dead quiet, everything closed around midday, perhaps because of Ramadan – most of the coastal towns here are Muslim. However, away from Ende churches become bigger and bigger, totally dominating the villages. Wolotope is a good example, with many houses perched against the mountains east of Ende, surrounding a huge church. The village seems economically dependent on weaving, under every house there are two or three women at work. Even though located along the coast, there is no evidence of fishing here.
Click here for the continuation of this trip.