Flores - an Indonesian island to explore
Flores - My first impression - breathtakingly beautiful. Stunning mountain ranges, lush rain forests, active volcanos and isolated villages.
The plane is in descent.
‘Oh Mum, cross your fingers and pray they’ve cleared the goats and people off the runway.’
My daughter couldn’t look me in the eye. I hadn’t been warned of this possibility.
Before a plane approaches or leaves Ende airport on the island of Flores, Indonesia, a siren sounds.
Then a yellow van is driven the length of the landing strip to warn the locals and unsuspecting goats.
It’s easy to see why. Welcoming villagers greet us boisterously from their homes. Washing is slung out to dry, dogs doze in the sun. It’s just another day on the edge of the airstrip.
Flores is one of the islands situated in East Nusa Tenggara, an Indonesian province, east of Bali. The other main islands are Sumba and Timor.
As recently as 2003 archaeologists discovered Flores Man – Homo floresiensis, in a karst limestone cave in Liang Bua.
Nicknamed the Hobbit this tiny human – one metre tall with grapefruit sized skull is thought to have lived on the island around 18,000 years ago.
Portuguese discoverers named the eastern most peninsula, Cabo das Flores – Flower Cape.
Scented and colourful, flowers glow over the island. Add to this palms, avocado, cloves, sweet potato, papaya, corn, melons, bananas and rice paddies in abundance.
My first impression - how breathtakingly beautiful this island is, choc-a-bloc with volcanoes, many of them still active.
Narrow roads curl around unspoiled landscape, stunning mountain ranges, lush rain forests leading to isolated villages.
This rugged terrain has helped establish individual traditions and languages from community to community. Each village is fiercely independent in its own culture and heritage.
A visit to the coloured lakes of Kelimutu was a must on my agenda despite the 4.30 am call. The early morning trek from the base, a 1.5 km walk followed by around 130 steps, is best done while it’s cool and before the mist descends from the mountains and obscures the view.
A Dutch geologist discovered Kelimutu in 1914. At that time the lakes were red, blue and white. Today they are turquoise, black and brownish and despite the early hour almost covered with swirling mists.
The colours are said to change without warning due to dissolving minerals and Kelimutu’s active volcanic presence below the surface.
Local people believe that souls and spirits come together at Kelimutu –the three lakes representing young, old, evil.
From Kelimutu it’s a short drive to Nggela village. Nggela appeared deserted when we arrived - but wait. Within minutes, Ikat sellers arrive, seemingly from nowhere and the place is suddenly bustling with enterprise.
Ikat is cloth hand woven in an intricate traditional method. Each area proudly boasts its own distinctive design.
Sarongs, shawls, scarves, blankets are woven in earthy orange and rust tones. Local weavers use handmade dyes and hand-spun cotton. Garments are then hand-woven and stitched.
Some schools use the local Ikat as part of the uniform.
Leaving Ende we drive along the rugged coastline before veering off through the mountains to Bajawa. This market town nestles in the hills dominated by active Gunung Inerie volcano.
Bajawa is in the Ngada Regency although not everyone considers themselves Ngada people.
Tucked away in this mountainous regions are various tribal villages, not primarily tourist attractions; the people here live and exist as they have for centuries.
As you enter the village of Wogo two structures are immediately visible. It is here the rituals, the animist beliefs, the rites of birth, death, fertility, sacrifice, the presence of ancestors, are represented.
One – a bhaga is a small square thatched-roof house commemorating female ancestors. The second (ngadhu) a wooden pole topped by a conical thatched roof often surmounted by arms holding a spear and axe, represents male predecessors.
The elderly women of Wogo are highly respected in the community and fiercely proud of their heritage. Protective of tribal rites and family, a harsh lifetime is etched on their faces. No Botox here.
Bena Traditional Village
Next stop is Bena, another traditional village. It’s larger than the other villages in the area and attracts more visitors.
Impressive displays of giant jagged stone monoliths indicate the important deceased people of the village. Other relatives are lovingly buried in the courtyards where they can be watched over. Some homes are decorated lavishly with buffalo horns, denoting the wealth of the family – past or present.
While it’s acceptable to visit the villages alone, guided tours are available. Just be certain a guide has knowledge of the history of the Ngada regency.
On our walk to the beach, a group of local youths greet us and sombrely guide us past a house where a man had just died.
Through the open door we see the tiny room glittering with candles. The corpse already garbed in pristine white is laid out on a small bed.
Kneeling around the bed women wail eerily into the darkening night. This wailing will continue until the burial.
The men are already busy outside cooking the pig they’ve reared and now slaughtered for the occasion. Let the feasting begin. It’s imperative the ancestor be sent on his final journey in style.
Passing a couple of days later it’s evident where the deceased is buried – the mound of fresh dirt almost touches the small house.
Candles blaze on his grave. More candles flicker on a makeshift altar in his now empty room. Children play unconcernedly around the new grave.
Thinking of how our deceased are immediately whisked away to a morgue or funeral parlour before burial seems somehow wrong.
Challenged in an unexpected ways.
The island, the customs and generosity of its people, are soon to challenge me in unexpected ways. My materialistic views take a battering.
Ende town centre is a hotch-potch of cluttered shops, uneven pavements, warung, (cafés) and market stalls.
Motor bikes roar, trucks and buses are crammed with people, inside, outside and clinging skilfully on top.
Somehow, they dodge and weave around the narrow streets avoiding the inevitable wandering goats, pigs and chickens.
Bemos, (small buses) the local mode of public transport, race around Ende at frightening speeds, hop on/hop off as you wish. Usually they travel in the direction you didn’t ask for but you’ll get there eventually.
The young male drivers play deafening music and generally have a good time.
Jump on with the pails of swill if you’re going to feed the pigs. Chuck on the chickens you just bought at the market, or the sacrificial goat on the way to a ceremony.
You’ll notice a hint of western influence. The blaring music and the Bemo names – Gladiator, Alpachino, Ketchup, Bigmacth
We pass small bamboo homes, housing several generations.
While modern cons are conspicuously absent, pride is paramount. Earthen floors and paths are immaculately swept.
Graves marked with wooden crosses are dotted amongst the houses, the Florinese like their ancestors close by.
Time to Leave
I can handle the transport but I’m not so comfortable with my conscience. Watching the local people growing vegetables, keeping fowl, trading their eggs, fruit, fish, conscious that every grain of rice counts.
I’m struck by the concept of use-buy dates. I’m appalled by my acceptance of throwing food away by a certain date?
Laughter is never far away from the Flores people. I’m so sad to leave.
All too soon it’s back to the plane, to the yellow truck on the landing strip, back to use-by dates and hot showers.
Back to all the commercialism I imagined I could never live without. I now know I can.