“Two million rupiahs for the trip to Maumere”, I had told the guy at the Gardena hotel open air lobby yesterday when he asked if I wanted a car. “On Java and Sumatra I normally pay 300.000 to 350.000 per day, so for four days and one day to drive back that would be about 1.750.000; two million should be a good price”, I had explained to him. At the Golo hotel they had asked 3 million and at the travel agency down the street 2 million and a half, but I reckoned that out of season that was over the top and indeed an hour later the lobby guy had shown up with Francis, who agreed to do it.
Francis is still talking vividly with three or four other locals sitting on the steps leading up steeply to the Gardena hotel where I spent a so-so night. I look in the back of his car: “Where’s my luggage?“, I look at him my quizzically. I asked him to pick it up from the lobby 15 minutes ago, before I walked off to go and book my flight from Maumere to Denpasar (where the guy had to spell my name three times before they got it right at the Merpati Airlines office end in Maumere). He looks neat, almost cocky: meticulous open white shirt over a T-shirt, sleeves rolled up one time, as he makes a play of not having understood what I wanted, but I suspect that this is his way of letting me know he is the driver not the porter. Words from Paulien last night come back to me.
Peter from the Golo hotel had spotted us having dinner in the Corner restaurant and joined our table when, almost aggressive, he had addressed me about the fact that I had not paid for the room. “It is not a matter of me not paying for the room”, I had tried to explain to him, “Linda offered it to me because of all the mishaps and I accepted”. “Yes“, Paulien seeing his disbelief, tries to help out, “Linda felt bad about it when she heard what had happened and that‘s why she made a gesture“. “And when did you plan to bring the towel back”. Not convinced, Peter tries another tack and indeed I had brought a towel from the hotel along for the snorkeling and since it was in my backpack back at the Gardena hotel when I went to see Linda, I had not been able to give it back yet. “I promised Linda I would do it tomorrow before I leave“, I tell him. “Peter really must have had quite a talking to, behaving like this“, Paulien muses after he has left and when a little later we talk of my ‘success’ in getting the car and driver for two million, she observes: “You often pay one way or the other” and she had told how a driver, whom they had negotiated a low price with, had cheated them by failing to pay his replacement as was agreed beforehand, so they felt they had to foot the bill after all.
“First we go by the Golo hotel to drop something off”, I tell Francis who has lugged my bag down the steps and lifts it into the back. ’You pay one way or the other’; I think while we drive off; I may have to keep my eye on Francis.
The Portuguese gave Flores its name and catholic religion when they colonized the island from 1512 onwards, until the Dutch pushed them out of most of the island in the 17th century and bought the rest by 1850. From Labuanbajo the road rises and panoramic views unfold, as the crow flies Ruteng is not that far but still it will take four hours of winding road to get there as Flores basically is a series of volcanoes separated by verdant valleys and has no coastal plane to speak of. The rainfall of the last few days has made the road to the limestone cave of Liang Bua, where the remains of the Flores ’Hobbit’ were found in 2003, impassable, Francis informs me, so the only sights for the day are the spider web rice fields and the Compang Ruteng, a traditional village on Ruteng’s outskirts, before Francis drops me off at the Susteran Hotel, a place run by the sisters of the Catholic Mission in Ruteng where the rooms are small but very clean and comfortable.
“Where my wife lives winters are very cold too”. Francis tells me when over dinner in the Agape Café I mention how lucky I am to I miss the cold spell back in Europe. For him as an Indonesian the cold came as some kind of a shock when he visited Hunan province where the parents of his Chinese wife live. She and their little boy stay behind in Jakarta while comes to Flores, where as a Manggarai, who live on the eastern end of Flores around Ruteng, he hails from, to work as a self employed driver. Where other guides and drivers always discretely ate separately, Francis freely joins me for lunch and dinner, another sign he is not much into the ‘hired help’ role, but I don’t mind the company and it also gives an opportunity to talk about Indonesian life. “Now that we couldn’t visit the Hobbit cave, I hope tomorrow there is a bit more to visit”, I query Francis over my espresso, and I admit that for a fleeting second, seeing how meticulously he maintains his car, I had suspected he had invented the impassable road to save it from the beating it would certainly get and , given the opportunity, I even would have checked . Well there is a walk around the turquoise crater lake Danau Ranamese, a visit to a local arak distilling place and hot water springs just outside Bajawa our next stop tomorrow night.
Ït takes a long time to get to the lake Francis”, it is over half an hour ago since we stopped to take pictures overlooking the lake Danau Ranamese and then drove on to what I supposed to be a lower point from where I could access the walking trail. Francis slows down and half turns around in his seat: “But I told you that the hotel project was abandoned”. Indeed shortly after we drove off again we passed a collection of deserted and derelict buildings along the road and Francis had mentioned that this was another one of those failed government projects, but at no time had he mentioned we could not do the walk. “So what, that does not mean that I can’t make a walk there”. “But there are no guards any more, nobody to watch the car while we are gone“, he counters, but sensing my rising anger he adds: “But if you want to I will drive back”. My suspicion is back again. Those buildings were not abandoned last week, but ages ago, so why did he not tell me yesterday when I asked about the programme over dinner. Is this one of his ploys, but for what purpose? Getting back, doing the walk and driving up here again takes a lot of time, so, still pretty annoyed, I tell him to drive on. ‘Maybe I should ditch him when we get to Bajawa and try to find another driver‘, I muse in the back of the car and it crosses my mind that this is already the third little incident in just a few days, first in the Merpati office on Bali, then the Golo and Peter and now this; is it me, am I more irritable after three months of travelling or what? We still have a few hours to drive before we get to Bajawa so I still have some time to refelct.
“Mr Gunnar do you like the beach? I have a friend who has a restaurant on the beach in Aimere, a very nice place, maybe you want to go there and have lunch“, it is 20 minutes later again when Francis brings this up; so that may have been it, his lunch commission. “No I don’t want to go to the beach, I want to visit the traditional Ngada village of Bela”. I have studied my guide in the meantime and Bela is about 10 kilometres from Bajawa. Francis mutters a few objections to the plan and in the end I have to specifically instruct him what I want before he backs off and things go well after that. We visit the arak distillery along the route where we buy a few bottles (Francis the 60% stuff and I the 20%); drop off my luggage at the hotel Bintang (the one Paulien and Ferry had advised me to take); do an interesting visit to Bela and the Mangaruda Air Panas, the hot water river meeting the cold one gives a nice view (but beyond that it is another failed and now derelict government tourist project); and have a late dinner at the Lucas restaurant, a simple tin-roofed place but with a nice local atmosphere, where they serve ’a fearsome if not unpalatable arak’, as my guidebook puts it, and Francis who knows the owner (of course) arranges for our arak to be mixed with honey and lemon for our own ‘fearsome’ supply. A few small glasses of the strong smooth drink is enough to forget any thought of ditching anyone.
The air is fresh, the early sun is not very warm yet, to the left of the path we follow a sharp line divides the lower part of the valley still covered in the shadows from the higher part already part of a promising new day. I follow guide Benjamin’s well worn earth-coloured feet over the slowly rising ridge to the top of the Wawo Muda (1753 metres) still an hour’s or so walk ahead. The day was just breaking when I had breakfast at 5.30 a.m. and Francis had sent some blanket wrapped children to go get Benjamin when we arrived at the small kampung where the trail starts. Shortly after he appeared from his the small hut, straight from his bed by the looks of it, he had seemed very old, seventy or so, but later when we rest at the top, when I ask him, it turned out he is only 48.
The Wawo Muda is the latest of the volcanoes to emerge on Flores and a 2001 eruption blew away a large part of the crater and left a few ’Kelimutu-like’ lakes. The crater and the lakes do not amount to much, but the views on the perfectly rounded cone of the Gunung Inerie in the distance and the cloud filled valleys stretching ahead us, do. Still maybe the nicest part is the three hour morning walk itself, some people are already working the fields or tending their cows when we walk up the mountain and many are coming up the path in twos and threes carrying tools or leading a buffalo, when we walk down again. Life seems organically connected to the nature around us, paced by the rhythm of the day, it seems the perfect place to grow old, but not as quickly as Benjamin please.
“Where did you plan to stop for lunch Francis”, I ask him when I get peckish. It is past 2 p.m. and after we visited Bena, another traditional Ngada village where the 86 year village elder Joseph told me about the time when he was trained to become a teacher by Dutch missionaries in the 1930’ and all that in perfect Dutch and now we are on our way to Moni on the flanks of the Kelimutu volcano where we will stay the night before climbing the volcano for the morning sunrise. “I have not had anything to eat since breakfast at 5 a.m. this morning, I am getting hungry”. I am in the back of the car working on my laptop. “I know a good restaurant in Ende”, Francis answers. “It is another hour or so”, he continues, when I ask him how far it still is. “Another hour? I had breakfast nine hours ago and I am not going to wait another hour“. (Even more so since I suspect it is more likely to be an hour and a half). “Let’s stop at the next decent restaurant”, I suggest. “Can’t you eat a biscuit or something”, that does it, he is even prepared to let me suffer, Francis really is something. “Not at all, we’ll stop at the first restaurant we see, decent or not”, I am in specific instruction mode again, but funnily enough I am past getting angry. Now that I’m on to him I’m rather amused in trying to read his schemes. In the next tiny village we find a simple rumah makan (eatery) and soon we are on our way again to Moni the little village on the flanks of the Kelimutu where we will spend the night. (By the way my hunch about it taking another hour and a half to Ende was spot on and that is not even counting a twenty minute stop at the ‘Blue Stone Beach‘).
I quicken my step just that little bit when I hear the sound of somebody getting closer behind me. It is still dark, I have walked for 20 minutes or so and probably have another 20 minutes to go before I get to the top of the Kelimitu (1640 metres) and I am not having anybody, in particular not that overweight American Steve (his very slim Indonesian girlfriend Dewi, OK), beat me to be the first at the top this morning of the 24th of January.
“Yes I was”, Dewi had confirmed last night after my ‘you were also on the plane from Denpassar, weren’t you’, that came out before I knew it. It had been a small plane and I remember seeing her sitting a few rows back on my left. We are standing on the veranda running in front of the four rooms of the Hidayah hotel in Moni, no wonder I remember her, because she looks quite attractive and in the back of my mind I wonder if she is travelling on her own. That was the moment Steve walked up from the lobby. Now it all comes back to me, they had been together and already then I had wondered how this overweight and not particularly attractive guy had managed to land this beautiful girl. It turns out that after arriving in Labuanbajo, they have done the two day boat trip to Komodo Island. “I did not like the idea of a primitive night on the island“, I tell them, to explain why I only took the one day trip to Rinca. They slept on the boat they tell me, which was not too bad, but only saw one Komodo Dragon. On that note the dozen or so Dragons, Paulien, Ferry and I saw on Rinca compare nicely. We talk a bit more while I offer them a bit of my ‘fearsome’ arak and Steve tells me he is a teacher in South Korea, where pay and conditions are better than back in the States, and Dewi is working in Surabaya. But I still have not got my head around how this unlikely combination works before dusk has fallen and it is time for dinner and for me to collect Francis sitting outside the lobby with his mates, enjoying themselves talking and playing guitar. “Ah“, one of them greets me in a bubbly mood: “You are the one Francis is driving; how do you like Flores”, and pointing at Francis, “Is he a good driver, do you trust him?” “Flores is beautiful and Francis drives OK, but trust him, of course not, I have to keep my eye on him all the time”. My tone suggests I am exaggerating a bit and they all take it lightly, also Francis, who, tone apart, by now could know that this exactly how I feel.
The crater rim stands out darkly against the night sky when I start to climb the last long stairway to the Kelimutu top, I am keeping up my speed because the steps behind me are still there. I‘m surprised about my own silly urge to stay ahead, what does it matter, but I keep it up anyway. I get to the top at 5.45 a.m., 15 minutes before sunrise, soon followed by the tea wallah, the local who had been waiting for customers down at the entry booth of the park and who was the one catching up with me. Steve, Dewi and Francis follow some time later and together we enjoy the sunrise over the mountains in the distance and then the slow revelation of the beautiful colours, turqoise, blue and black, of the three Kelimutu crater lakes. A special sight indeed and what a relief after the Bromo. If you have the choice leave the Bromo with its hectic traffic and crowds and climb the Kelimutu, where a nice hot cup of tea waits for you to boot.
I try the door to the airport check in, but at 6 a.m. on Maumere airport the next day it is still closed. “I expect they will open it in a minute”, I say to the somewhat older and well dressed lady already waiting there. “I hope they do, I can’t wait to get out of here, away from this terrible island, back to Europe where people treat you correctly”. She says it with some unexpected vehemence in a heavy German accent.
I had some more unfortunate experiences myself after Francis dropped me off in Maumere. The girl at the Merpati Airline office (again) said something in Indonesian at my expense and for the benefit of the onlookers when I insisted that my name should be spelled correctly on my plane ticket, enough for me to explode and berate her that she had not managed to get my name right even after she been told three times by the travel agency back in Labuanbajo. I did it in English, but I am sure she and the others got my drift. Then the night lobby guy at the Garden Beach hotel in Maumere had failed to wake me up at 4.30 a.m. (actually I woke him up), did not get my breakfast and my taxi was not waiting either (so much for the earnest assurances they gave me the night before). Finally I had to hitch a hike in the hotel delivery van to get me to the airport on time.
“Where did you stay then”. I ask her. She had stayed at the German run Beach Club, one that I had considered for myself as the upmarket option before I decided the Garden Beach was nice enough with a lounging area and restaurant overlooking the beach. “The service was terrible“, she tells me, and on top of that the staff was charging her extra for every item that should have been included in her package deal. “Certainly most hotels on Flores are not top quality“, I agree with her, “But for example in Ruteng I stayed in the Susteran hotel run by the Catholic Mission and that was not bad at all“. “I hate the church and everything related to it and I would never stay in a place with a cross on the wall“. Well, I see, that is not going to lift her spirits either. But come to think of it, maybe all the little run-ins I had over the last few days that I thought I was to blame for, getting irritated about Indonesian sloppiness and all, were not my fault after all, well at least not all of it.
The plane climbs out to sea before it makes a 180° turn and flies back across Flores and down below, a bit hazy but clearly visible, is the Kelimutu, its three coloured lakes standing out and I can see the rim where I know a few people must be standing now, like Steve, Dewi and I did yesterday, enjoying the extraordinary view. So whatever happened to the German lady, or to me, it certainly is not a reason not to come here. Flores is beautiful and the Komodo Dragons and the Kelimutu are world class sights that outweigh the little frictions with people(probably should not say this out loud though).