Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flores: Hidden flower of the East

Flores: Hidden flower of the East
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Sun, 09/04/2005

Christina Schott, Contributor, Jakarta

Flores. For years we wanted to go Cabo da Flores (Cape of Flowers), as the Portuguese called the island in today's East Nusa Tenggara when they first arrived in 1512. Whether they chose this name because of the beautiful vegetation or because of the colorful underwater gardens is not clear. Both are overwhelming in the right season; just after the rain is over, when the mud has dried but the dust has not yet risen.

That was the moment, as we sat on a flight to Maumere, we had the idea to roll east to west along the Trans-Flores highway. From the air, we got the first impression of the breathtaking landscape waiting for us: Flores, 375 kilometers long but extremely slim, presents dramatic mountain scenery up to 2,400 meters above sea level and 14 active volcanoes. And even from high up we could see the clear turquoise water around the northern coast, with its coral reefs that promised to fulfill every diver's dream.

As an important junction, Maumere is a good place to start in, although the town was mostly destroyed by a devastating tsunami in 1992. Since there was not even a fraction of the international attention last year's tsunami drew, the thousands of victims had to rebuild their homes with few donors in a rather unattractive way. However, some quiet bungalow resorts on the way to Larantuka -- once the headquarters of the Portuguese Dominicans -- provide pristine, white sandy beaches and access to snorkeling and diving spots.

Very soon, however, we learned that transport on Flores not only needs time but it also has its price: Either you pay in U.S. dollars for a private car or you bump your body around chicken cages and other loads piled up in the middle of a public bus. We chose the second option, hoping to get some travel originality. We got it. With three goats and a pig screaming on top of our heads and the finest selection of East Nusa Tenggara hits of the Eighties. All at full volume, of course.

We also understood quickly, why every passenger on the bus was greeted with the distribution of plastic bags. The ""Trans-Flores-Highway"" is, indeed, the biggest road on the island but that doesn't mean much, since it is often the only asphalted one. It is an ever-winding mountain pass road that hardly provides enough space for two buses passing each other, let alone the potholes. ""Nothing compared to 40 years ago,"" reassured a retired missionary who had first arrived on Flores in the 1960s. ""At that time, the trip to Ende took us a whole day on dusty earth.""

Nevertheless, the stomach- and buttock-torturing journey was worth every kilometer for its gorgeous panoramic views. We needed four hours to our first stop at Moni, the gateway for a visit to Mount Kelimutu, whose three-colored crater lakes are one of Flores most famous tourist attractions. Early in the morning, two hired motorbikes took us to the freezing dark on top of the volcano. Every story the villagers told us the night before about ghosts and other mysteries suddenly seemed very real.

From the parking still half-an-hour-climb through the fog, we reached the platform on the top just in time to imagine the sunrise behind the impenetrable clouds. Thanks to our sarongs and thermos bottle with hot tea we could stand the cold a little longer than the disappointed Dutch travel group that arrived with us so that we were on our own to witness the sun breaking through and turning the three dark water holes around us into the bubbling crater lakes we were hoping for. Because of unexplored chemical reactions the color of the lakes have changed several times in the last decades, leaving them now in a shimmering black, sparkling turquoise and rusty dark brown. The souls of the dead are said to live here and we could imagine them dancing in the steam rising up the steep slopes.

After a two-hour bus ride and a 15 degree Celsius difference in temperature we reached Ende. The capital of Flores doesn't offer much as a tourist attraction except a dirty harbor and one of the island's three public Internet cafes; the others are in Maumere and Ruteng. It is also a good place to buy famous ikat (traditional weaving) made all over the island and to prepare oneself for the freezing nights at the next stop in the mountains: Bajawa.

The main town of the Ngada region is -- beside Labuanbajo -- probably the best-prepared for travelers. Everything is organized by local guides and the bemo (three-wheeled motor taxi) mafia, and even their tour prizes are fixed. But you need them: We probably would never have found our way to the traditional villages of the Ngada people alone. A few kilometers can become a long winding way through an unknown forest. Another problem is the language: not all of the indigenous people speak Indonesian. As different as the climate on Flores is, as different are the peoples, their features and their languages.

The Ngada normally live in matriarchal communities with strict sacred rules. Although they were converted to Catholicism -- the graves in front of their towering wooden houses show crosses -- they still follow many animist traditions. Among the crosses, there are megalithic altars and a lot of other symbols like the ngadhu and bhaga, reminding us of the female and male ancestors of every clan living in the village. On top of these open graveyards play the children along with cats and pigs, as the mothers weave the traditional black-and-white ikat. But behind their brown stained smiles -- what the sirih (betel) addiction left of their teeth -- lurk symbols of modernity; Coca-Cola boxes in the back of their houses.

After a soothing bath in the nearby hot springs of Soa, we are ready for our last bone-shaking bus trip next morning. It starts with an impressing tour around Mount Inerie, and offers direct views to the sea from the top of the peaks before reaching the Manggarai capital Ruteng. From there it is still another four-hour-drive to Labuanbajo. This bustling harbor town is mainly inhabited by Muslim immigrants from Sulawesi and is the starting point for all kinds of boat trips to the innumerable islands between Flores and Sumbawa -- before all go to Komodo National Park.

We need a break after all the bumpy streets and the shouting bus drivers. So we head straight away to Seraya, one of small islands around Labuanbajo; islands which are rented from the government by hotels. Seraya Kecil looks like it was arranged for a travel advertisement: surrounded by white sandy beaches, transparent water and beautiful coral reefs. The island accommodates a small fishing village and -- at the other end -- a dozen simple but clean bamboo bungalows. The only permanent inhabitants there are a couple of deer, a family of dogs and a herd of goats. The rest is all yours.

How to get there:

Flights from Denpasar starting from Rp 500,000 by Merpati or Pelita (to Ende, Maumere, Labuanbajo) and GT Air (to Labuanbajo). PELNI ships go on different routes from Surabaya to Ende, Maumere and Labuanbajo. The trip by public bus and ferry takes around three days from Bali.

Where to stay:

Maumere: Sea World Club, Waiara (13 km from Maumere), Phone: +62-382-21570, www.sea-world-club.com

Ende: Hotel Ikhlas, Jl. Ahmad Yani, Phone: +62-381-21695. Upscale traveler hotel, clean and organized.

Labuanbajo: Those who don't want to stay in the busy immigrant town, should take the Gardena boat to Seraya island and find Robinson's paradise; Seraya Island Bungalows, c/o Gardena Hotel, Labuanbajo. Phone: +62-385-41258, www.serayaisland.com


Those who don't want to rely on the uncomfortable public transport or see places off the beaten track, should arrange a car and a guide. Warmly recommended: Leonardus Nyoman, experienced guide, speaks English and German, phone: +62-812-366 2110, Email: leonardus_nym@yahoo.com

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