Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hello Mister

Mon 16/03
Arriving in Larantuka ferry-lagged, we barge our way off through a sea of people. Flores looks beautiful with volcanoes lining the harbour and Mr Lawrence has given us directions, so we head off to fill up with our first lot of Indo fuel. 4500Rp or AU$0.50-60 per litre is like winding the clock back 15 years.

We’d promised ourselves some beach time to unwind before all this started, so the plan is to head for one near Maumere and maybe do nothing for a few days. On the way we come across some amazing bee hives in the trees. We’d seen a doco a while ago where the villagers climbed down cliffs to harvest the honey, but didn’t realise they were here. The hives seem to shimmer as the bees move in a sort of Mexican wave, apparently a defence mechanism against wasps.

Trying to find somewhere to stop and take a picture, maybe have a drink, a pee or to just stretch our legs is pretty difficult. The Trans Flores ‘Highway’ is narrow, relentlessly twisty and has spectacular changes of altitude. 3rd gear is always optimistic and the steep 1st gear hairpins are wicked with a heavy bike. There’s a couple from Oz who did Flores 2-up on a big Harley a few years ago. Respect

More difficult by far are the swarms of people who crowd around us whenever we stop. This is starting to become really claustrophobic. You can rationalise it however you like – it’s a bike mad country and they’ve never seen bikes like these before, they’ve got a fascination with Westerners, they just want to practise their English, they don’t value privacy or personal space in their culture – whatever. Nothing can prepare you for it. If you’re tired from a long ferry ride, or maybe just having a bad day, these are the most annoying people on the face of the earth.

Late in the day we find that contrary to what the Lonely Planet (LP) says, the beach cottages near Maumere are double the list price and don’t hire snorkel gear. We try a place down the road, which is unbelievably 8 times the list price. The last place is ok but mozzie infested, so we look at each other, shrug our shoulders and head for Maumere instead. The beach is going to have to wait.

Tue 17/03
The Flores Hwy is an amazing feat of engineering which twists and turns and pummels us into submission.

At one point it briefly ducks down out of the mountains and touches the sea near a small fishing village. Out of the corners of our eyes we spy a sign for accommodation tucked away behind a tree. Slowing down to give the beach a quick look, we backtrack to see whether this could possibly be the secluded bungalow of our dreams.

It’s close. Really close.

Right on a pretty, deserted beach, far enough away from the village for a bit of privacy. No electricity. An outside mandi which is open to the elements, with water drawn from a well behind the house. A bed which has been home-made out of left over planks of timber and bamboo. No mozzie net, but we’ve got our own, and the owner assures us with a grin that the mozzies here are only little ones anyway. This could be it! As a bonus, the LP doesn’t mention this village, let alone the bungalows, so it’s tourist free.

For the rest of the day the beach belongs to us. That night, after picking clean a beautiful fish, the decision to stay a few days comes pretty easily, and if by now you’re curious to know where this place is, um... sorry. You’ll have to come to Flores and find it for yourselves. We’re not sharing.

Wed 18/03
Breakfast this morning is ok, but we’re both losing weight, with Lucas starting to resemble a prisoner of war, so munch on some bananas as well. They’re kind of an Indo cliché, but we both like them, so seem to have a bunch with us most of the time.

Every village seems to have its own mentally challenged person. Maybe it’s inbreeding. Maybe it’s just the law of averages. Later in the day, this one scopes out our little spot on the beach and proceeds to build a fire right next to us. His face drops when we ignore him and walk back down to the bungalow. Unfortunately for the couple who’ve stopped at our place for lunch, he takes it out on them by standing and silently staring them down until one of their guides chases him away.

That’s pretty much the only excitement for the day. It’s a good day.

Thu 19/03
The family here once had electricity. You can see the wires strung about the place. But for some reason they don’t anymore. Not even a generator. We wish we could speak Bahasa well enough to ask them why.

Dinner is cooked on an open fire. Dishes are washed in well water and left in the sun to dry. After dark, the family sits around their lantern talking. They seem happy.

We’re pretty happy too. We’ve never eaten so much fish in our lives.

Fri 20/03
Reluctantly we leave the bungalows (all our stuff has finally run out of power) and head off for Ende, which supposedly has a tourist information office. We’re hoping to get some info from them on ferries to Sulawesi. Boy, are we still green at this stage...

Apparently Gunung Kelimutu is the biggest attraction in Flores and volcanoes hold some sort of primal fascination for us. The clouds are still holding off at midday, so we fly up the side to check it out. From Kelimutu, the road into Ende is beautiful, so we take our time and check in late to yet another anonymous budget hotel.

Note to any Australian viewers who might be paranoid about an Indonesian invasion: nearly every town we’ve stayed in so far has daily power cuts ranging from a couple of hours to all night. Their 2% income tax is probably inadequate to maintain a decent infrastructure, but when a big chunk also goes into the pockets of corrupt officials you’ve got a population which mostly seem to live in third world conditions.

Sat 21/03
Maybe Soeharto instigated the “Hello Mister. Where are you going Mister?” campaign. He hated Westerners. It’s like Indonesia collectively suffers from Tourette’s. Hello mister hello mister hello mister hello mister HALLO MEESTERRRR!......... It makes walking down the street a massive turn off.

And that’s just average folk. Then you’ve got to deal with ojek drivers, bemo pimps, guides and anyone else whose eyes light up when they see an ATM walking towards them.

Today’s challenge: survive being asked “Where are you going?” 50 times without snapping and firing back a “None of your business” in return. We fail. What is this, North Korea? Nazi Germany? They’ll be asking for our papers next.

The Tourist Information Centre is closed. Surprise surprise. Getting any information on anything in Indonesia seems almost impossible. After driving round in circles to find an internet cafe, we manage to discover that there is a ferry to Sulawesi and it goes weekly (according to some guy on a travel forum). That’s pretty much it. No day. No time. Just weekly. So because it’s impossible to know what day to get to Labuanbajo (the western most port in Flores), we stop worrying about it and make a late exit from Ende.

The problem is, it’s left us in a foul mood for the ride and so later when we’re sitting on the side of the road having lunch and a local politician pulls over with his driver to shake hands and video us for his campaign, we literally turn our backs on him and tell him to go away. Unbelievably it takes several minutes for him to take the hint.

Maybe this is just our 15 minutes of fame. Do Brad and Angelina get this much attention?

When we’re on the bikes it’s just as bad. Young guys yell at us from the side of the road when we pass. Kids scream at us and run out onto the road. Drivers flash us or wave “Lampu!” because our headlights are on. Valentino Rossi wannabes want to ride alongside, race or just follow on their 125s. Older guys give us a manly thumbs up, as if this somehow validates our choice of motorcycle and completes us.

Maybe though, it’s the gawkers that are the most infuriating. They’ll happily sit and watch you have an argument by the side of the road, just like they’re watching a soap on TV. In fact they’ll happily sit there and watch you do pretty much anything. Eat a banana. Anything. You don’t get any space to just think.

Because of all this attention, we deliberately seek out deserted spots of road just so we can stop and have a break. This isn’t easy to do in Flores with two big bikes and critically, when we do find a spot, it has to be big enough for us, but no bigger, preferably on a blind corner. That way it leaves no room for a potential fan-boy to pull over.

If we’ve misjudged, the conversation will go something like this:

Hello Mister
Hello (wearily)
Where are you going?
a) That way (pointing)
b) ... Silence ...
c) Please leave us alone
d) Look just piss off would you
Brrrm, brrrm, how many cc?
650 (pointing to the 650 on the engine case)
How much does it cost? (the crux of the problem)
a) Lots
b) Don’t know
c) Fell off the back of a truck
d) More than you’ll ever earn in your lifetime. Satisfied now?

The LP has misnamed the hotel in Bowae, which is unfortunate for the lady who owns it, but the veranda has a great view of Gunung Ebulobo smoking away in the distance. It’s a great spot to sit and not be hassled and do nothing for the rest of the day.

22/03 – 24/03
Most people come to Bajawa to get out into the countryside and explore the traditional Ngada villages. Most sensible people hire a guide, an ojek, or catch a bemo. We obviously take one of the bikes.

Bena is probably the most traditional village and is a protected site which sits on the side of Gunung Inerie, the local volcano. We somehow ride straight past Bena and keep heading down the side of the volcano. It’s a steep gravel road that just keeps getting steeper. 1st gear and plenty of back brake make it pretty nerve-wracking 2-up, but there’s a point where it gets stupidly steep and turns to loose rock. Ann gets off, which is just as well when Lucas goes ass over a few metres further on.

It’s impossible to explain what goes through your head at times like these. This bike has to get us half way round the world and we’re trying to wreck it. This really isn’t fun. How are we going to pick it up off the side of this volcano? Fuck that hurt.

Luckily someone coming up the other way stops to help, because it takes the three of us to get the bike upright. One slightly twisted clutch lever, a blinker that needs some duct tape, a dinged pannier and a bleeding right leg is the total damage. It could have been a lot worse.

After riding back up the volcano, which is almost as nerve-wracking as going down, we have a forehead-smacking moment as Bena comes up on the right. It turns out to be the highlight of Indonesia for us so far, which is even more amazing considering it takes half an hour for Lucas’ heart to stop pounding.

Later in the day we meet an expat who’s been living in Bali. She’s just returned early from the markets because her 10 year old daughter is traumatised from all the gawping and attention she received from the locals. We’re obviously sorry for her, but afterwards take heart that maybe Flores is just the Hicksville end of Indonesia and things may improve later on.

Hello Tourism Indonesia. Is there anyone home? There's certainly alot of Indonesians who wish tourist numbers would pick up. Why doesn't somebody setup some of Flores’ better tourist attractions with an up-front charge and distribute the money to the local villages? Just an idea.

At present you’ve got a situation where you might go to visit one of the Ngada villages. Maybe Wogo for example. One of the ladies living near the entrance might say hello to you. Some of the others might speak enough English to have a friendly conversation with you. You might even have someone invite you in for a coffee (this is a coffee plantation). At this point you might even be considering making a small donation to the village. However, over coffee this person may very well start telling you stories of his travels to Australia where he made sweet sweet lurv to many many Australian women. He may then tell you how poor he is and swiftly move the conversation to the cost of your motorbike and how everything here is so cheap for Australians. At this point you might be looking for the nearest exit and how to end the conversation as politely as possible.

Why not charge tourists an admission fee of Rp10,000 and do away with all this crap?

Wed 25/03
The ride to Ruteng is only about 130km, but that’s a long way in 1st or 2nd gear. The views of Gunung Inerie are pretty spectacular. The views of almost everything in Flores are spectacular.

This afternoon in Ruteng, it was confirmed to us by a guy at the hotel what we’d already suspected for some time. In Indonesia there’s a direct relationship between the size of your bike and the (imagined) size of your penis. This has been causing Ann some confusion, but happily for Lucas means currently he’s the most well-hung guy in Flores. Ann had been noticing more of a swagger in his stride lately, but had put it down to saddle-soreness.

Note to viewers: If your hotel room looks ok, but has some big gaps around the tops of the windows, try somewhere else. There aren’t many things worse than being woken at 2am by two big rats scurrying along the top of your bed head. Trying to sleep with the lights on in a rat-infested hotel room is futile.

Thu 26/03
Things seem to come to a head in Labuanbajo. Tiredness, another day of treacherous riding, the gawkers, lack of parking for the bikes, the heat, the noisy dusty shithole of the main street, whatever. The issue is the bikes and whether we should send them home, sell them and continue on foot.

The bikes are supposed to be the ultimate freedom machines, but mostly they’re just liabilities. Everywhere we’ve been so far you can get to using public transport. It’ll take longer. You’ll be slaves to some ’rubber time’ timetable. You’ll be crammed in with countless people, chickens and goats. But you’ll get there eventually. The bikes on the other hand... well they literally complicate everything and just seem like a lot of hard work.

Amazingly, Mr Lawrence is staying two rooms down from us, so after breaking one of our cardinal rules and eating a sympathy meal of fish and chips at a tourist restaurant, we catch up with him and talk broken English and completely busted Bahasa until late.

Fri 27/03
We decide to check out our options today. They are:

a. Catch a ferry with the bikes to Lombok, then Bali and Java, completely skipping Sulawesi and Borneo
b. Somehow get the bikes home, sell them and resume the trip with our backpacks
c. Stick with the plan and catch a ferry with the bikes to Sulawesi, then another to Borneo

After also deciding to check out what Labuanbajo has to offer, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s really just another Airlie Beach/Shute Harbour. From a tourist’s point of view, there’s no reason for its existence other than to service the surrounding islands. So we decide on the sensible thing and do a deal for a couple of days of island hopping and snorkelling and put off the big bad decision until later.

Sat 28/03
The boat is typical Indo. A putt putt diesel pushing a little, clapped out wooden hull. The captain’s offsider pumps the bilge most of the way out to Bidadari Island, which in hindsight isn’t particularly reassuring, considering the lack of lifejackets on board. We don’t really worry about this at the time though; it’s just nice having someone else doing the driving for a change.

Bidadari has some nice coral and is perfect for Ann, who isn’t a big fan of open water diving.

We watch some guys on and off during the morning digging a boat out of the sand and dragging it down to the water. At what seems like the perfect time to float it off at high tide they break for a 2hr lunch. The boat’s still there when we head back late in the afternoon. Rubber time.

The scenery heading back to Labuanbajo harbour is Flores at its best. Stunning.

Sun 29/03
Sabolo Island is completely deserted and has some great snorkelling off the beach, with plenty of fish. Ann spots a moray eel and we hover over some cuttlefish for ages. Cuttlefish must be the coolest animals on the planet.

Again, the scenery on the way back is mesmerising, but spoilt a little by the sight of all the rubbish in the ocean. Indonesians treat the ocean as their own private garbage dump. It’s depressing when you’re on a ferry to see bag after bag of rubbish being tossed over the side.

Note to viewers: the World Ocean Summit is being held here as we write this in Malaysia. We laughed bitterly upon reading this in a local newspaper. The average Indonesian’s attitude towards the ocean or any part of the environment is appalling. Completely, jaw-droppingly appalling.

Mon 30/03
Ok, so we’re not wimping out. We’re continuing with the bikes to Sulawesi.

Hopefully it’ll be a little less Hicksville. Hopefully we’ll have a change of heart in Makassar or Toraja. We want to like Indonesia, we really do. And apart from that, the reality of getting the bikes back to Oz is too daunting to face right now.

Tue 31/03
Ferry day has arrived. 26hrs of rusty, paint-peeling joy, chugging along at 9 knots.

After loading the bikes and entertaining the passengers and crew with our Tying The Bikes Down routine, we get joking around with some guy pretending to be the captain. Eventually, after he invites us up to the wheelhouse for the second time, we realise the joke is on us.

The wheelhouse is pretty casual, with the young crew and cadets seemingly running the show. There’s a stereo in the corner next to the GPS and pretty soon someone’s dancing. Fortunately when we’re underway the cadet steering the boat is all business, even if the rest are still having a laugh, trading English lessons for Bahasa.

Meanwhile, down below on the cargo deck, the 6 buffalo are finally settling in for the voyage. At the time we assume they’ll be used to work the fields in Sulawesi, not realising they’re actually destined to wind up as ritual sacrifices at some funeral ceremony in Toraja.

Luckily, instead of sleeping on the deck with the cow shit, the crew invite us to sleep up on top, behind the wheelhouse and under the stars.

Goodbye Flores. It’s been emotional...

1 comment:

  1. Wednesday 20th May, Here !! rain rain rain .Two days now and more to continue through to next week. And YOUR complaining !!!! about road etc.
    Wondeful stories so far!!!
    What would it have been like IF everybody stayed away from you.
    Looking forward to the next installment. Stay safe and keep going. Love N.