Arriving in Labuhanbajo was a surprise. Tourism was the market here, not fish. There were swish hotels, foreigner-friendly restaurants and plenty of other bule around.
The boat arrived late (of course) and I checked into a cheap hostel just in time to catch the last of the sunset across the harbour.
I’d crossed Sumbawa in four big days but there was still no time to relax. I now had my sights firmly set on Larantuka at the western end of Flores 650km away. A Pelni ship departed from there to Kupang on the 21st and if I could catch that boat I’d reach East Timor just before my visa expires.
I didn’t get off to a very good start in Flores. Apparently I’d been concentrating more on the beer in my spare hand (first time I’d seen any for sale since Bali) as I was adjusting my brakes and ended up slicing up my forefinger when I accidentally stuck it into the spinning wheel. Ouch! My first night in Flores was spent cleaning up blood and patching up my finger. I really don’t have time to deal with an infection right now…
This island was going to be a work out. I realised that within the first half hour. At the end of town the road turned sharply uphill for big climb up to 1,000m. It was a brutal ascent – the worst I’ve tackled in a long time and a million times steeper than those gentle gradients over the mountains of Sumbawa.
The gradients weren’t the only difference. The fauna was more lush here – the jungle looked more like the rest of Indonesia than those dry forests in Sumbawa. The people’s houses were different too – small square boxes with rusted tin roofs. Even the faces had changed as well – darker skin, broader noses and thick curly hair.
But the most suprising difference was the return of Christianity. Although there are Christian bubbles all over the world, it’s been over a year since I was last in a predominantly Christian place (Armenia) and the switch was a shock.
There were many Muslims down at the coast, but inland it’s churches that dominate religious life, not mosques. Some of them as simple as the local homes, but others stood tall above the other nearby buildings .
I can describe the topography of Western Flores in two words: up, down. Imagine a thin island lined with volcanoes and a road that climbs straight up to over 1,000m, dips down to sea level and then all the way back up. Now repeat. Again. And again…
Once I was over the first pass the landscape changed. Suddenly things weren’t so lush. The trees were as leaf-less as in Sumbawa and the rice paddies looked incredibly sorry. Dry season is clearly not an easy time to farm in many parts of this island.
I had my first kids come and ask for money as I climbed the first mountain. I had been warned this might happen so I just smiled politely and continued cycling. The problem is that I’m cycling at walking pace up these steep hills. The kids would follow me, hands out. First they’d talk to me in Bahasa Indonesia and then they’d switch both demeanor and language. ‘Money, money’.
As I passed another little village a couple of young kids shouted out ‘fuck you!’. My reaction was to laugh at them but as I rode on I couldn’t help but wonder: who has taught these kids to swear and ask for money?
Something was very different in Flores. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but whatever it was I didn’t like it. As the road began to climb towards Ruteng I pulled over to a small kiosk by the edge of the rice terraces to buy a bottle of water. After I paid one of the women held her hand out asking for more money. Betel nut (remember that stuff from Myanmar?) is back on the menu here. This old lady had a blood-red mouth full of the stuff – always gives me the creeps. I wasn’t sure if she worked there or was just hanging out, but I double checked if I’d paid correct and I had. She was just asking for more money and although I didn’t have the language skills to ask why, I don’t think there was a reason. For the first time in my trip I was beginning to feel like an ATM machine.
When it was time to find a campsite I slowed to find someone to ask if I could pitch my tent in their village. I have done that many times in this country and always felt fine about it. But here the kids took the opportunity to run out asking for money. I pushed on until I found a track leading away from the houses and into the forest where I pitched my tent in peace and quiet. It had been a hard first day in Flores and I needed some alone time to try to make sense of my new environment.
The next morning was different. Within the first 5km I’d been invited to coffee twice. The people were lovely, even if they barely spoke a word of English. Today would be different. I was confident and high on caffeine – ready for the big climb to Ruteng.
It was another exhausting ride with more kids calling for money in villages. When you are lugging 40-something kilos up a hill that steep it’s hard to remain patient with them. It was so obvious that I was struggling – dripping in sweat and heaving with all my might. And yet these kids would walk next to me patting my bags with outstretched hands.
When I reached Ruteng I stopped to check the map on my phone. Within minutes I had a gaggle of kids around me. Just staring, watching, throwing the occasional ‘hello mister’ out. This place was exhausting. I found the cheapest hotel in town and climbed into bed.
Up in the hills Ruteng was almost cold once the sun had set. Not great for the cold water mandi (bucket shower) but wonderful for sleeping.
And yet, I couldn’t sleep. My body was exhausted from the climbs but there was too much on my mind.
The people are poor here. There is clearly less money here than anywhere else I’ve been in Indonesia. If people’s financial situation means they have to ask tourists for money then something is wrong. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I want to do the right thing, but I’m not sure what that is.
I should note – this is the first place in the world I’ve had this happen to me, hence why I struggled to deal with it. I had some teens ask for money in Romania, young kids asked me on a couple of occasions in Armenia too and one day in Vietnam I got asked three times by children. That’s literally all in 20 months across 34 countries. Here it’s happening daily…
I could stop and hand out money to the kids. Surely that wouldn’t help? It would only fuel a negative environment. That’s what people always say. Or is that just what us Westerners tell ourselves to cover up our own selfishness?
I have been in far poorer places where people have never asked me for money. On the contrary, I’ve had to decline the stuff they’ve tried to give me! Who has given the kids the idea that foreigners can and will just hand out money on request? Do their parents tell them to ask? Have tourists parked their car and chucked money out the window in the past?
I rolled down from Ruteng to the coast again. It was a glorious descent. The road weaved its way down through the clouds, sliced through jungle and then would open up across wide valleys of rice terraces.
I stopped in one village to look for a place to camp (it’s very hard to find somewhere to wild camp). I was about to carry my bike up to the church to ask about a place to sleep but then some kids appeared who – you guessed it – wanted money from me. I can’t stay somewhere like this. So I continued down the mountain and found a police station where I could pitch my tent for the night.
I stayed up chatting to the police. Booze came up in conversation and I told them I’d never tried arak, their local palm spirit. Before I knew it one of the policeman had whizzed off to grab a bottle of home brew liquor and poured me a glass. It reminded me of the many baiju sessions in China. Same random occasion, same dodgy looking re-filled bottle and same vile taste. One of the cops poured a little on the floor and tried to light it to check it wasn’t too strong…
The next mourning I noticed locals selling bottles of the stuff next to their petrol stalls. I wouldn’t be surprised if they use the same bottles.
There was a more exciting sight on show that morning, however. Above the arak vendors Mt. Inerie was standing in all her glory.
Quite an extraordinary peak, isn’t it? I had great views of the summit all day as I began to climb up from sea level to Bajawa. Mangoes were almost back in season here – the big green fruit was dangling from the branches above the road. But they didn’t last long. The road ascended quickly and soon I was back in the clouds with cold goosebumps across my arms when I stopped.
Up in the mountains the people changed again. Small straw ‘mini-houses’ appeared next to the normal homes. I couldn’t work out what they were. I was in a bad mood so didn’t take any photos but later I found out that they represent past ancestors’ spirits (or something like that). There were two different shape huts: one represents male and the other female. The people here are very Christian but this was another of those intriguing examples of how people mix their old animist beliefs with a seemingly contradictory and new imported religion.
More kids asked me for money on the way into Bajawa. I was still struggling to find the right attitude to deal with it and went into hiding in another hotel. I felt so different around the people here. I was used to the constant ‘hello mister’ing wherever I go in this country but in Flores it was different. More kids were silently trailing me up mountains and people would shout stuff and laugh. I felt like more people were jeering and heckling me rather than offering shouts of encouragement. I missed the people in Sumbawa. I missed the tourist-friendly Bali.
Sometimes cycle touring feels like walking a tight-rope. You try you’re best to stay in check but every now and then a gust of wind knocks you off balance. Most of the time you can keep yourself in line but when you get pushed too far then everything falls apart. I was tired from so much cycling. I wasn’t enjoying Flores. I was lonely. I was homesick. It was rubbish. I was annoyed with myself for letting myself get brought down so easily by a minority of not-so-nice people. It was bad cycling.
I wanted to give people a better chance. I needed to. The next evening I stopped at the large church in the village of Nangaroro to ask if I could camp there. They weren’t having it but the local English teacher was knocking around and said he could help me out if I waited a short while. A baptism was taking place in the church and the hymns were strangely comforting to my homesickness. I don’t associate choral singing with Indonesia. I associate it with England.
I walked around the back of the church, drawn in by the singing. The interior wasn’t quite so inviting. The priest was doing strange water stuff and I decided to wait outside.
Suddenly I was whisked off to the post-baptism party. I’d cycled past the ‘venue’ on my way into town. 16 (I counted) large speakers were rigged up for a small gathering of people. You’d have enough volume from that rig to power a festival, but here we all were – sat around unable to chat because the music was too loud watching a few young girls dance around.
The English teacher told me that the room he thought I could sleep in was full (didn’t quite get it) and we returned to the church to collect my bike. ‘Why can’t I just camp here?’ I asked him. He shook his head – apparently a ‘crazy man’ frequents the grounds and there are ghosts as well.
Ghosts? Give me a break…
He suggested I camped in the market space which I didn’t like the sound of, before inviting to sleep in his home. We sat up chatting with some local teenagers and what started out as an incredibly pleasant evening soon got weird.
All they wanted to talk about was money. When I told them (truthfully) that I had been places far poorer than here they didn’t believe me. I told them that in London there are people that live on the streets and that blew their minds. I tried to divert the conversation to football (the mutual language of the world) and they were gobsmacked when I said I very rarely go to Stamford Bridge because it’s too expensive.
Saying that it’s ‘relative’ is slightly pointless because we in the West do, on the whole, have a far greater disposable income. We are richer. But sometimes the relativity is a lost concept. When I told them that the Danish Kroner is 10 to a pound, they said Denmark must be poor in comparison. Just because the currency is a number ten times higher it doesn’t mean that it’s 10 times poorer… it doesn’t work like that! People find that hard to understand around the world.
Then a couple of the guys started asking for my clothes. One wanted a bracelet (they are just bits of woven string I’ve been given in other Asian countries). I thought it was a weird request and told him that he could have them if he could untie the tangled knots. Apparently that was too much work. Then the other teenager asked for my neck buff. Is it normal to ask people for their clothes here? I bought that buff for a couple quid in Iran. It’s manky – dark from a year of accumulated dirt and sweat that I can never quite wash out. What will I do on the next dirt road when the trucks kick all the dust up into my face? Not a chance I’d give that away.
Then someone mentioned beer. They gave me a nudge when the teacher wasn’t looking, rubbed their fingers together and mimed that I should go to the shop to get beers for us. I’ve only had one beer since Bali. They cost 30,000 rupiah (about the same as in the UK). I don’t buy them here because my budget can’t afford them. I excused myself and went to bed. They were an odd bunch.
In the morning the teacher was complaining to me about how tough his life is. The place he lived was a incredibly basic, but he still had a fancy motorbike. He told me he could get a better job elsewhere and I asked him why he didn’t just move. The answer was that his mum wouldn’t let him. That’s a difference between our cultures that I will never understand.
Yet another rear spoke broke the next day so I stopped in Ende to make the repair. I found a room for 60,000 (£3.50) and was a recluse that afternoon. I was still struggling with Flores.
From Ende there was another huge climb to Moni. To make matters worse I was sick again. Stomach cramps and diarrhea made the 50km climb hard work. Every time I had to dive under the cocoa trees for an emergency poo a mosquito would bite me on the arse. I had a very itchy bum by the time I reached the top.
At 3am I woke up feeling well enough to cycle up to Kalimutu volcano. In a move not surprising on this island, entry for foreigners is 150,000 (£8.50), 30 times the price for Indonesians. Thirty. That is completely outrageous. I snuck past the entrance office at 4am, slipped in for free before they opened and reached the top before the tourists drove up for sunrise.
It was stunning up there. Three craters filled with amazingly opaque liquid – each of them a different colour.
They have changed colours a lot over the years. On the photo-board they had even been red at times.
Perhaps it was my own attitude, perhaps the people around me – but everything was better now. I cycled down to the South Coast and then up to the North coast. In one of the guesthouses I was allowed to pitch my tent by the beach. I had a delicious dinner and stayed up chatting to a lovely Dutch couple staying there. Despite the fact I’d seen more foreigners scattered across Flores than elsewhere it had been quite a lonely place for me. This was the first proper conversation I’d had on the island.
I reached a turn off the next day where two roads split on the way to Larantuka. The minor road was shorter and sealed at the junction. I was fed up with the Trans-Flores main road, so opted for an adventure along the northern coast.
The scenery was worth it. The road cut along the bottom of the cliffs around a dramatic coast. I had lunch on a beautiful white beach and swam in the shallow waters. There was nobody around.
The road would climb over the hills and them drop down into a new fishing village. The people were fantastic – all the smiles felt genuine and comforting. I stopped to talk to people, was invited for lunch and generally treated as well as I usually am in this country.
The kids would go crazy upon my arrival. Sometimes they’d start chanting ‘bule’, ‘mister’ or ‘tourist’. As soon as some started shouting the other kids would come out their houses and I’d soon have dozens of kids running after me chanting the same word over and over like some frenzied tribe. I raced away before they could catch me and tie me up over the fire…
I stopped to say hello to one particularly persistent bunch. I was expecting hands out ‘money?’ but the kids were so sweet. They just wanted to know where I was from, where I was off to etc and with my limited Indonesian we had a pretty decent chit chat.
The road was tiring. In the afternoon I reached another junction where I could cross the island again and reunite with the main road. It was an easy decision considering I needed to reach Larantuka the next day for my boat.
After a night camping in the forest I continued along the bumpy road south. The island is only 10km wide here but the road condition didn’t make the crossing easy. Then, suddenly I was back on asphalt. Hurray! Plain sailing from here…
I arrived in Larantuka in the afternoon. The attention reached boiling point once again. ‘Hello mister’ over and over again. I found the Pelni office, bought my ticket to Kupang (relieved to have confirmation that it was leaving the next morning) and settled into the cheapest hotel I could find.
Flores had been a really crazy 10 days. So many ups & downs, both physically and emotionally. Tourism has done something strange to this place but it hasn’t spoiled the scenery. In terms of natural beauty, Flores was 10/10. Everyday the landscapes changed, from cold misty mountains, beautiful jungle roads, vast rice paddies and stunning beaches. This place has everything.
The first half was tough, I admit. But the second half so much fun that I forgot about all the hard bits.
Was the pain worth the gain? Absolutely.