The Flores Situation

I’m in the middle of Flores, an undeveloped island in Southeastern Indonesia, and I’m surrounded by 50 angry villagers, half of whom are drunk on rice liquor and carrying machetes. This was not in the brochure.

I should have known the road trip was doomed when my guide pulled up lame within the first hour. It was something he ate combined with the relentless twisting and turning Flores Trans-Island Superhighway – a one-lane path of mostly crumbling asphalt that stretches from Labuanbajo to Maumere and traverses volcanoes, skirts the coast and arcs over raging rivers. It can fit two vehicles side by side, but barely. Jacabus, my guide, seemed fine until Ricos, the driver, pulled over suddenly and Jacabus started hurling uncontrollably. He tried to hang, but two hairpins later and his guts were roiling publicly yet again. We put him on a bus back to town, and continued on. Luckily, Ricos spoke some English… more than I originally thought, and we made our way through the countryside.

At this point you may be wondering why in the hell two Indonesian gentlemen have names like Jacabus and Ricos. The answer is simple, Flores was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and 400 years later the people are still Catholic – there are churches in every village – and their names are still Latin, although, sadly, the Portuguese effect on food and architecture didn’t last. Although in Flores, indigenous architecture is striking, and nature is raw and soul soothing. There are views on the Flores Trans-Island Superhighway that make your mind go blank. If it isn’t the hip high rice paddies that roll with the wind next to swaying coconut palms and boiling rivers, it’s the young volcanoes with their perfect cones that rise from the jungle and the sea. The road itself is fairly new. Even 20 years ago it would take nearly four days to travel 200 kilometers. Now it takes half a day.

Bus connections are minimal and schedules fluctuate, so if you have a limited amount of time to see Flores then renting a car is your only option. I’ve been on limited time for the last few months – courtesy of a Lonely Planet schedule that had me bouncing from place to place so fast, and absorbing so much that by the time I arrived in Flores I was barely lucid. Arranging the car was easy, but finding a flight back to Bali was a lot more difficult. I’d hoped to drive across the island – from Labuanbajo to Ende or Maumere and fly back to Denpasar from there. I’d been told by various airlines that this was an easy hop to arrange. Not so much.

You may have read about Indonesia’s embarrassing rash of airplane accidents lately. That prompted the government to undertake a full-scale review of every airline, airport and plane in the country. The hopeful result would be higher standards and fewer bloody headlines. And this review happened to disqualify every plane that would otherwise have been flying from eastern Flores to Bali. All flights had been cancelled indefinitely. I wasn’t particularly upset about this. A bad plane is a bad plane, but I was a tad disoriented by the fact the airline reps in Bali had no idea about this. Do they think these flights still exist? Can we have a government review of all airport desk clerks to make sure synapses are still firing?

The upshot was that I had to drive across the island twice in the three days, significantly compacting my already short schedule. The main highway links all major cities, and our first stop was the foothill hamlet of Ruteng, four hours from Labuanbajo. It’s a fairly quiet city that lolls over rolling hills. We stopped at a coffee factory/cafe for lunch, where I bought a lovely ikat, a traditional hand-woven blanket that is Flores’ definitive handicraft. Mine is a beautiful, huge one of a kind piece that will make an ideal bed spread, something I’ve sorely been lacking. At $15 it was a steal.

After lunch Ricos went to replace our bald tires, thank god, while I checked email in the dustiest internet cafe’ I’d ever experienced. It was the only shop in town, packed with locals, and the connection was superb…. easily better than most in the country. It was run by a single owner/operator who was forever tuning and taping and keeping Ruteng wired with the rest of the world. I’ve come to think of these quiet internet clerks in lonely Indonesian towns as unsung national heroes. What a community service they provide.

We left Ruteng at around 4pm for the 4-hour drive to Bajawa, an attractive mountain town surrounded by volcanoes and traditional villages. One hour in and we were in a thick fog bank. Visibility was 10 feet at most and the higher we wound up the highway – the steeper the drop-offs. This was especially unnerving because all of village life happened on this highway. Children played, adults walked, chatted, and gambled, animals (read: chickens, goats and cows) grazed and roamed…But Ricos was at the wheel, calm and collected. He handled the turns like a pro, avoided on-coming trucks and buses and dodged villagers smoothly. After a harrowing couple of hours the clouds cleared and we were in Bajawa.

In Bajawa, the food is good, the hotels stove-heat water for morning showers, and traditional architecture buffs love the surrounding villages. Ricos and I stopped through Wogo and toured a compound of 25 bamboo bungalows with peaked, thatched roofs and bamboo-beamed ceilings. The entire village was working to re-roof most of the huts – something done every 5 years. Men and women worked together to harvest treat and shape bamboo. I took coffee inside one of the huts with an elderly woman who had hypnotic, luminescent eyes.

From here it was only six hours to Kelimutu Crater, outside of Moni. We skirted the seaside city of Ende and made it to Moni in record time. The whole point of this journey was to see Kelimutu and survey the lodging options in Moni, something that hadn’t been done by a Lonely Planet author in a few years.

Kelimutu is special because within its crater are three lakes, each with a different color. One is a bright turquoise and the other two are constantly in flux due to the mineral rich earth. One is yellow, red or black, and the other varies between dark green and orange. Most travelers come up for the sunrise, but we made it an afternoon session. Ricos and I were the only ones up there, and the skies were perfectly clear. When clouds roll in the lakes are completely covered. This can happen at any time and is the only concern for visitors. We were fortunate, and just sat silently and watched the lakes for a couple of hours, until the clouds wisped in.

As night took hold, Ricos drove me from restaurant to restaurant, and guesthouse to guesthouse in Moni, as I explored and took notes about each and every one. After two hours we stopped for dinner, and I told Ricos we were almost done. “Only two more,” I said. He thought his workday was done, and he was not pleased. We both knew that we had to drive all the way back to Labuanbajo the next day (16 hours at least), so I had to see these places tonight. He begrudgingly agreed, but as we drove around after dinner he complained of being sick.

“I have fever,” he said. “I think… malaria.”
Malaria?! Jesus. I gave him a warm shirt and tried to feel his brow to gauge a fever. He didn’t feel that warm, but repeated his dreadful diagnosis.
“Yeah, malaria.”
He shivered and shook as we drove to the last two hotels, and then I begged our guesthouse manager for some medicine and soup for the cold, stricken Ricos.

At this point I was legitimately concerned about Ricos. The next morning, he looked fine, and didn’t seem to be suffering or trembling or have any outward signs of illness, but could he handle a motor vehicle? He was obviously still upset about the late night work because he barely looked at me as he led me to the car for the trip home.

His mood improved when we stopped by the pharmacy and I sprung for medicine. He now claimed that malaria was unlikely. I was glad to have some semblance of our camaraderie back, but all good vibes died because of what happened next, in a village not 45 minutes from Bajawa.

This was a straight stretch of road, and visibility was perfect, but there were villagers all over the roadside and motorbikes zooming on both sides of us. Ricos took his eye of the road to make sure he wouldn’t hit a motorbike as he accelerated, but as he did so he drifted over to the edge of the asphalt – and was now right in line with two teenage boys with 100m to go. I figured he’d look up and see the kids in plenty of time. But the distance shrunk quickly. I spoke up, and then I shouted. The kids must have heard us at the last minute. One jumped out of the way, but the other took the side view mirror right in the back, between the shoulder blades. The mirror popped off and the kid was down. I jumped out of the car. The kid writhed in pain, villagers poured on to the scene from anywhere and everywhere. It was noon on a weekday, and nobody had anything better to do. Not even close. Ricos was freaked. And I was a bit nervous myself. With the ever wafting sent of alcohol and the gleaming machetes… things could have gotten ugly. Thankfully, there was one English speaker in the group.

“You take hospital, okay?” “Yeah, let’s go!” I said.

We took the kid and his buddy with us, and followed the do-gooder on his motorbike. The kid was going into shock. He was pale and breathless and crying. I wrapped him in my newly beloved blanket, which I had to double back to retrieve after leaving it at the cafe. Thank God we had it. The kid stabilized. Meanwhile, his brother was riding next to us on a motorbike and yelling at Ricos, who was engaging in the debate while driving the kid to the hospital.

“Don’t say anything, Ricos… you know, let’s just go to the hospital,” I advised.

We arrived there and so did 35 motorbikes, two minivans and a huge open-bed truck full of villagers. The entire community was going to see this thing through. We carried the kid to a gurney, and the people packed the room, hovering over him. It was amazing. The nurses didn’t clear the area, no ice was offered, we just all waited for the doctor. She arrived ten minutes later, on the back of another packed truck. She was a German nun who had lived here for 30 years. She spoke only German and Bahasa. I suggested ice to her, and she approved the idea immediately. Three different women came in and out of the room, bawling. One of them had to be the kid’s mom, but which one? Meanwhile the doctor said that he had no broken bones, and was simply severely bruised. I was relieved… this could have been much, much worse.

The next stop was the police station where Ricos and the boy’s family (his angry brother and drunk but compassionate father) arbitrated for monetary damages. It was a two-hour process in which the police listened to Ricos’ story and the doctor’s report. They even went to the missionary hospital nearby to check him out. The kid’s family wanted 500,000Rp at first (about US$56). Ricos negotiated that down to 200,000Rp(US$22). Plus he had to pay 35,000Rp (US$4) for emergency room services. He ran down a kid, could have killed him, and all he had to pay was US$26. That’s cheap in any country.

At one point during the tense proceedings I was sitting outside, when a paunchy middle-aged man came waddling over. He had seen this distraught bule (that would be me) sitting in front to the police station, and thought it would be a good time to try out some of his English on him.

“How are you today?” he began. I shook my head and didn’t respond.
“Nice to meet you,” he continued, undeterred. I waved my hand and nodded, yeah, yeah… Then he poked his nose in the room, listened for a moment and turned back to me.
“There was a problem,” he said with a big smile. “They are talking about it now. Then you can go.”
I snapped.
“I know what’s happening, okay?! I was there. Who are you?! Do you know this kid?! Do you know anybody in there?!” My brand of bitter English was not what he was trained for. He just nodded and took off. I turned toward the office, sheepishly, to find everyone staring at me, dumbfounded. “Sorry,” I said as I shrugged. They all laughed hysterically.

Before we left town, Ricos and I went back to the hospital. Ricos wanted to see the kid again, and I cracked some jokes with the locals to break the ice. Ricos said his final apologies. So did I, and we left. But I noticed something inside. The kid was still wrapped in my hand-woven ikat blanket. Was it too soon to reclaim it? I mean, what’s the statue of limitations on that kind of thing? Okay, so my rental car and probably-not-malaria -stricken driver almost killed him. But no bones were broken, there was no blood, and 18 year-olds bounce back from these accidents, don’t they? I tried to ask the nun-doc about it, but she just nodded and smiled.

Then I thought, “what would Larry David do at a moment like this?”

I knew immediately. So I went back inside and asked the nurse for a hospital blanket. She gave me a sheet. I bent over the kid, gave him a smile then slowly rolled him over, grabbed my new bedspread out from under him, and covered him with the sheet. “Feel better,” I said. He looked at me strangely. So did the locals.

“Well, it is my blanket,” I muttered as I gave them all the thumbs up. “Don’t worry… he’s gonna be just fine.”