Melaka & Singapore – 48 hours a piece

Melaka is only 2 hours bus ride from KL airport and a good stopping off point on the way to Singapore- assuming you’re busing over the border. The Malaysian atmosphere was immediately familiar and I liked the city a lot. It’s very compact and has more museums per sq metre than anywhere else I know. Firstly a Portuguese colony, then taken over by the Dutch, followed by the British, then back to the Dutch before finally being given back to Malaysia, Melaka was the major port for Indian, Chinese and Arab traders. Identified by its distinctive red stone buildings, Meleka fell into decline as Singapore and Penang (under British rule) rose in importance and it is only recently that the city has been restored to its former glory and received UNESCO World Heritage status.

I indulged in my favourite pastime of strolling round the city, occasionally ducking into a gallery, museum or temple, meandering along the lovely canal and laughing out loud at the OTT tuk tuks. I also replaced most of my clothes which, after 6 months, I was pretty bored with and also my faithful, if rather whiffy, sandals! I also ruthlessly ditched items which I felt hadn’t earned their keep, reducing down to 14kg.

Bag refreshed and final indulgences in Malaysian street food satisfied (peanut sauce fondue taking fish, meat and veg satay to a whole new level), I headed over the border to Singapore and soon found myself down in the pristine underground – about as far removed from a Hello Kitty tuk tuk as you can get. Luckily I surfaced in Chinatown, where my Airbandb was located, so felt right back at home.

First impression walking round? What a bizarre city. It architecture is like a mini London. There’s a small scale St. Paul’s dome on top of the National Gallery, a clock which strikes like Big Ben, Raffles Hotel (famed for concocting the Singapore Sling) which could be the Dorchester, Shakespeare Theatre, a few pubs and a compacted Square Mile. Because the city is so small the banks loom over the cricket pitch which is adjacent to the Cathedral, which is next to the Arts Complex, which is astride the harbour, which is dominated by the 3 Marina Bay Sands towers. If these are Singapore’s vital organs then the cutesy Quays are its arteries and shopping malls with integrated food courts its veins. After months of night markets and street food it was actually quite nice to enjoy these shiny, squeaky clean places and they weren’t at all expensive.

Highlights of my 48 hours were: strolling through the lush Marina Bay Gardens; enjoying the juxtaposition of old and new architecture; stumbling upon quirky sculptures; an evening concert in the bay featuring a swing band with an academy of swing/jive students dancing to their old-time tunes and, best of all, queuing for over an hour to buy ‘soya chicken, crispy pork and rice’ from Singapore’s first Michelin Star hawker stall, the accolade having been awarded 3 days previously. The cost – just £2.

Before my short trip to Australia gets underway, I’ve made a note of a few things which I HAVEN’T done since I left the UK in January:

Worn makeup
Worn heels
Carried a handbag
Been to the cinema
Played tennis
Had food poisoning or any illness that confined me to bed
Put milk in my tea
Cooked a meal
Drunk champagne or wine
Lost or gained weight
Missed the daily commute

Nett result:- a happy, healthy, about-to-be 59 year old having the time of her life!

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Sumatra – lakes, beaches and a touch of romance.

imageAs you can imagine, by the time I made my way to Sumatra, the last island on my Indonesian odyssey, there was little left to experienced. However, after hours of reading up on places to visit, I managed to find areas slightly off the usual tourist trail. This meant passing on Lake Toba (overly touristic), choosing instead the more laid back, and much prettier Lake Maninjau and passing on Bukit Lawang (famed for its orangutang which I had got up close and personal with in Borneo), choosing instead the most northerly province of Aceh.

My flight from Jakarta took me to the once sleepy fishing village of Padang on the west coast. Like most of the west coast of Sumatra it was badly damaged in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and subsequent 2009 earthquake but it has picked itself up and is now Sumatra’s third largest city. Padang is the home of one of the islands most famous dishes, Rendang – chunks of beef or buffalo slowly simmered in coconut milk until the sauce is reduced to a thick black paste and the meat is dry. Served cold with rice and water spinach it’s delicious.

The town is also the jumping off point for the Mentawai Islands, which according to the surfers I met, has some of the most challenging waves in the world. I’m up for trying most things but draw the line at surfing humungous waves on a fragile piece of fibreglass. I would have liked to meet the Mentawaians (one of Sumatra’s oldest and most authentic indigenous tribes) but being two days before the end of Ramadan, getting to and from the islands was complicated and fiendishly expensive added to which solo female travellers are a rarity.

Instead I got to know the Minangkabau people who live in Padang province. Though the society is Islamic, it’s matrilineal. According to Minangkabau adat (traditional laws and regulations), property and wealth are passed down through the female line, therefore every Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother’s clan, and women rule the roost.

Music, dance and rituals are important to these cultured people whose houses are easily identifiable by their distinctive sweeping roofs with sharp points on top and by their patriotic black, red and yellow flag.

Idul Fitir (the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan) is a very, very big deal in Indonesia, and in Sumatra in particular, it being the most muslim of all the islands. Everyone gets at least 3 days holiday, though most take a full 10 days, and everyone returns to their home village. This means mass exoduses from every major city in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi etc, grid locked roads, inflated air, bus and train fares (if you can book a seat), as everywhere grinds to a halt.

My plan therefore, was to find a quiet spot and lay low for 3-4 days. I chose Danau (lake) Maninjau, a three hour bus ride from Padang, which actually took 5 hours as we acted as a courier service delivering Idul Fitir parcels all along the way!

I’d heard that the villages round the lake celebrated Idul Fitri by constructing and then floating huge rafts of the main Mosque, a Minangkabau house, the clocktower and various other structures, on the lake. They cover the structures in lights, musicians play traditional music and every few minutes they let off deafening ‘bamboo bombs’. This I had to see.

I found a picturesque guesthouse directly overlooking the water, owned and run by a lovely couple called Jake and Fifi (everyone adopts a western name), who made me feel very welcome, as did their cats. I canoed round the stunning lake in a traditional wooden dug out, swam in the cool water with little fish for company, strolled up into the forest where nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and cocoa trees abounded (first time I’ve sliced the bark of a cinnamon tree and rubbed it on my neck to keep mosquitoes at bay) and I ate yummy lake fish. I got on well with my fellow guests, 2 French couples around my age and a rather eccentric older lady, half French half Italian which made evening meals enjoyable. It’s interesting how the French and also the Germans and Dutch travel so extensively but not so the English. Why is that?

 

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The eve of Idul Fitri didn’t disappoint. The celebrations started at 10pm and went on until about 2am. Families lined the streets and the quayside to enjoy the floating barges. I bought sparklers which I shared with amused local lads and there was lots of eating, but of course no drinking and SO MANY BAMBOO BOMBS!

The following day started with 7am prayers in the main Mosque, except not everyone could fit in, so the ring-road round the lake was closed to traffic to accommodate people praying in the street. Everyone was wearing smart new clothes and the children were being made a great fuss of. After prayers everyone went visiting relatives and friends. I strolled round the village and was invited into several homes to drink coffee and eat cake. I was touched at how welcoming everyone was, and how much fun we had trying to communicate. Of course some of the older children now live and work in the big cities so their English is good but their parents speak about as good English as I speak Bahasa Indonesian i.e. we can hold a very basic conversation which typically revolves around our families and my travels, which fascinate them.

The young children wear little bags and if they shake your hand you are allowed to give them money. If they just come up to you and ask for money, as some of the cheeky older boys did, that’s an automatic ‘get lost’!

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Celebrations, including traditional music and dancing continued into the wee small hours again and the following day. Jake took me and one of the French couples on a tour of the area which is very beautiful. We visited the Rumah Gadang Pagaruyung Royal Palace, outside the town of Bukittinggi, which was overrun with locals (hardly a foreign tourist in sight) enjoying a day out. The Palace was struck not once, but twice by lightening and is therefore a reconstruction, but it gives a good idea of how the royals in a matriarchal society lived and I believe, continue to live. The King of the Minangkabau now lives a few km away. We decided to swing by, and whilst we didn’t meet him, we did meet his brother and about 50 of the family celebrating Idul Fitri together.

There is much, much more I could write about Danau Maninjau, its villagers and their way of life and the delightful surrounding areas but I need to move on……. and you need to go there.

Celebrations calming down, it was finally possible to get a flight out of Padang to Bandar Aceh and thence a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh in the Andaman Sea. I was going their principally to dive. I clocked up 5 dives, one of which was into a live volcano with hot bubbles, sulphur deposits and a strong smell of rotten eggs. Big puffer fish (my favourite) were alone in enjoying the strange environment, swimming slowly in and out of the bubble beside me – a surreal, memorable experience.

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My other new underwater experience was vomiting! Rough seas and a strong underwater swirl resulted in me, and the thankfully meagre contents of my stomach, parting company. I managed to stay calm and made a measured ascent, holding my dive master’s hand whilst retching into my regulatir all the way…….

I planned to stay 3 days on Pulau Weh but I loved the island, the people (barring the he fact that 85% of men over 12 years old chain smoke) and the vibe so much that I ended up staying more than a week. It helped that I had a lovely wooden cabin in the trees, with glimpses of the crystal clear waters and monkeys and geckos for company. The cabin was owned by 3 dynamic sisters (Eka, Emile and Sabine) who every night attracted a crowd of music-making and card-playing locals to Olala’s restaurant. They seem to be the Corleone’s of Iboih owning most of the guesthouses and restaurants and the oldest established dive shop.

Zipping around the island on a motor bike I stood on a promontory, my back to a disused Japanese bunker, staring in awe at the confluence of the Andaman Sea and the Straights of Malacca where mammoth tankers inched across the horizon like metal icebergs. I also stood at ‘Kilometre 0’, the most westerly point of the Indonesian Archipelago. One day I’ll make it to Kilometre 5,200 in Papua.

 

Every day I would think about leaving and every day I asked myself why, when there was nowhere else in Sumatra (other than the city of Bandar Aceh) I had a burning desire to get to. Then my French friends from Lake Maninjau turned up so it was nice to hang out with them. I was also aware that after leaving Indonesia I would be hopping from Malaysia to Singapore to Sydney and that battery recharging was probably a good idea.

Eventually I took the ferry back to the mainland where I was met by the three sisters’ (there’s a play in there somewhere) friend Anton, who was to be my charmingly romantic companion for my last few days.

Bandar Aceh in the province of Aceh, is very strict muslim, practises Sharia law and is one of only two dry states in Indonesia, the other being Surabaya in Java. Bandar Aceh was the epicentre of the 2004 earthquake and subsequent three tidal waves which surged with such ferocity that the destruction reached 5km inland sweeping away everything and everyone in its path. The official death toll from the disaster was 140,000 people but locals say it was more like 200,000 – almost 2/3 of the total number if people killed.

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Anton, like everyone else I talked to had lost loved ones. He vividly described the harrowing events that changed his life for ever. First came the tremors from the earthquake deep under the sea, then shortly before 8am the first 18 metre high wave struck. He grabbed his 11 month old baby and, with his wife clinging round his neck, swam for what seemed an eternity. He said he felt guilty that he wasn’t a strong swimmer and many times he went under. His wife couldn’t hold on and she was lost. He made it to dry land still clutching his daughter but away from the maelstrom he realised she was dead. As if this weren’t enough pain to bear, a huge tanker had ridden the top of the wave for 5km and come crashing down on top of his village burying everything and everyone beneath it. He took me to see the tanker and you only have to look at the photo I took to see the pain is still there.

As I said, everyone has a story to tell. It’s impossible to comprehend the horror of that fateful day and the scars it has left. And yet the people of Bandar Aceh have proved remarkably resilient. Sure international aid poured in, rebuilding vital infrastructure and amenities, developing a new city and outlying villages, but once they left, the people needed to find their own way through, and they have. Their strong faith has clearly been the most significant contributor to recovery, and the central mosque, which mysteriously stood firm whilst all around was destroyed, was then, and remains today the focal point for healing. But besides their faith, or maybe because of it, the people appear to be enjoying life again.

The coastal village of Lampuuk, where I rented a beachside cabin (rebuilt with Turkish aid, each new house sporting the Turkish crest above the door) was perfect. The beach was rugged, windswept and deserted – not dissimilar to the Cornish coast, which is probably why I felt at home!

We whiled away the days walking along the beach, fishing (unsuccessfully), biking into the mountains to swim in waterfalls, cooking, playing the guitar and reading. I finished Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch (brilliant for 750 pages then mediocre for the last 200).

My last night in Indonesia I sat on a tree stump on the beach watching the dark rumbling clouds blot out the sun (no picture postcard sunset) while the waves from he Indian Ocean crashed out on the reef and Anton chanted verses from the Koran which he used to do in the mosque as a young boy. Sounds idyllic? It was.

Reflecting back on the last 6 months I was feeling blessed to have had so many incredible experiences. When I embarked on my travels I had no idea how they were going to pan out. I was confident I’d enjoy myself but I never imagined I’d be exposed to as varied, thought-provoking, mind-expanding and joyous events, places and peoples as South East Asia and Indonesia had gifted me.

One piece of advice I will long remember: ‘it’s too hot to stop at traffic lights.’

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So where to next? I need to make one last trip to the Malaysian peninsular to visit the one time influential port of city of Melaka before 48 hours in Singapore and then it’s G’day Australia.

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Java – its temples and volcanoes

Java – its temples and volcanoes

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Java is the political, economic and cultural centre of Indonesia and, despite being only the fifth largest island, over 60% of the population – some 141m+ people live there.

My relationship with Jakarta was confined to transiting from its train station to its airport and with Surabaya from airport to bus terminal. Not so the Sultanate city of Yogyakarta where I spent several happy days exploring the historical quarter which has preserved its royal legacy. My guide Akan is a direct descendant of the 8the Sultan (now on number 10) who had 25 wives and 78 children, of which her mother was one!

Historical stuff ticked off I spent a day in an art studio learning the art of Batik making. It’s complex but straightforward if you follow your teachers instructions and have 7 hours to spare. The satisfying end product being this 50×50 oeuvre which is a gift for my soon-to-be-born grandchild.

Another fun thing to do in Jogja is to be blindfolded spun round and then attempt to walk in a straight line between two big trees. Noone seems to manage it but if you do it means you have a pure heart. The trees as in the main town square which comes alive at night to the sound of music coming from brightly illuminated electric cars being driven round the square by happy families. The nightly tradition grew from a group of students wanting to brighten the lives of children traumatised by the 2006 earthquake which killed 3,500 people.

Java boasts 38 mountains that have at one time or another been active volcanoes. The most active in the whole of Indonesia is Mount Merapi, an hour’s drive from Jogja. It erupts on a regular basis, most recently in 2014.

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Close by Merapi is the 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple, Borobudor. Following a series of volcanic eruptions in the 10th and 11th centuries, Borobudur lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth until the early 1800s when it was discovered by staff of British Governor General Sir Stamford Raffles. Careful restoration of the 2,672 intricate relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, resulting in UNESCO World Heritage status, have ensued that Borobudor remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple, as well as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world.

At the same time that Borobudor was under construction, 10km to its east the Hindu Shiva temple Prambanam was also being built. Like Borobudor, Prambanam fell victim to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and fell into ruin. Unfortunately it has been impossible to reconstruct the 240 temples within the compound. However the three main temples dedicated to Shiva, Visnu, and Brahma and the three temples in front dedicated to the mythical animal of each god; Nandi, Garuda, and Hamsa have been restored along with a handful of other smaller temples. I watched the story of Ramayana unfold against the nighttime backdrop of these temples – it was beautiful.

There is a well-trodden route which travellers follow from Yogjakarta to the volcanoes of Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen and then on the Bali. Most do the long, arduous journey in 2-3 days. Being older and with time on my side, I spent two days at each mountain and then, having ready been to Bali flew completely the other way, to Sumatra!

So, first up Bromo which required a 3:30am wake up for a steep climb in the pitch dark to the vantage point (aptly name King Kong) for sunrise. My track record with sunrises isn’t brilliant, but that was about to change. As dawn broke three mountains were silhouetted against a sky changing from blue to yellow to pink to white with the smoke spewing from Bromo reflecting the changes. As the light increased so it became possible to see the valley below and several distant volcanoes. The whole thing was jaw-droppingly beautiful. And it was about to get better as commandeered a Sumbawa horse to cross a sea of volcanic ash to climb to the rim of the crater. Bromo erupted in December with punters only being allowed to the rim in March.

Standing on the rim (behind a sturdy wall, I hasten to add), I felt overwhelmed by the sheer force and grandeur of nature and for once, was lost for words as I stared into the mouth of the crater, listening to the crackle of the magma and then an eerie ‘boom’ as clouds of smoke sometimes white, sometimes black or brown rose up from the depths of the volcano.

Mount Ijen was a totally different experience. It required an 00:30 wake up in order to climb 3km uphill to the crater rim and then to descend 1km into a sulphurous pit, belching out toxic yellow smoke to witness the ‘blue light’, which is only visible pre-dawn (i.e. 3:30/4am), and is on,y found here and in a crater in Iceland.

As we descend into the mouth of the volcano we passed men digging out hunks of sulphur and then carrying 100kg pallettes up the mountain. It was clearly back-breaking work for which they receive a pitiful £2 a load and they looked prematurely old. Back up the crater and along the rim for sunrise, where normal service of a mediocre event was resumed. Back down the mountain in the rain notching up 12km before 7am. Christ did I need that cup of tea!

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The area I stayed in near Ijen was great. The guesthouse was in the middle of a coffee plantation producing Indonesia’s famous Luwak coffee. Originally made from the pellet droppings of wild civets the coffee now comes from civets force fed in captivity. They seemed quite happy in their cages, and it has to be said the coffee is delicious but is it ethically right???

The village is also famous for its strawberry farms and for its neat houses with immaculate front gardens – all a bit surreal.

Java is the first of the islands I travelled through which is predominantly Muslim. I very much warmed to the people who I found really friendly, interesting and interested. Because it was Ramadan it was difficult for them to be hospitable but having been warned about frayed tempers through lack of food and sleep, I witnessed nothing be good humour (and bad breath!!). Muslim faith is profound and especially during the holy month, requires much praying. This meant that the Imam chanted for long periods both during the day and at night. At first I would always wake up with the 4am call to prayer, but after a couple of weeks it washed over me like being in a trance.

I’ll be sharing more stories about lovely Muslim communities and the Idul Fitri celebrations which follow the end of Ramadan, from my final destination – Sumatra. Meanwhile I said goodbye to Java with the first ever flight I’ve missed due entirely to my own stupidity!!

 

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

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Tana Toraja, Sulawesi.

Tearing myself away from idyllic Flores I decided my next destination would be a specific region of Sulawesi, famous for the extraordinary funerals that take place during or directly after rice harvesting.

With two connecting flights to get me to the capital city of Makassar I was convinced this would be the first time me and my backpack would part company but no, all was well.

Makassar is a sprawling metropolis with heavy traffic and few stand-out sights. As it was boiling hot my best option was to head for a beachside hotel to while away the afternoon before my night bus to Rantepao, the capital of the Tana Toraja region. Sulawesi is notorious for its terrible roads and transport system. I was therefore expecting a horrendous 9 hour journey but it turned out the bus had spacious seats that reclined almost to a flatbed, proper pillows and blankets and best of all no freezing air con or incessant musak.

It was a bumpy ride and it rained heavily but I managed to get enough sleep, arriving in Rantepao at 6am in good spirits. Luckily a fellow traveller had given me details of a reliable guide who was there to pick me up, take me to the homestay he had organised for me and plan my 4-day trip with him.

I say I was lucky because most of the travellers I talked to had found themselves harassed by local guides the minute they stepped off the bus. Being tired and unsure of the lie of the land they had gladly accepted lifts to homestays and then before they knew it had signed up for trips at overly inflated prices. My guide told me this was becoming an increasingly severe problem and urged me to write about it on the go-to source of information which is Trip Advisor, suggesting visitors take their time in finding a guide, talking to their homestay host or hotel etc. Job done.

The Torajans live in the highlands of South West Sulawesi and traditionally practiced animism, worshiping Puang Matua – the god of their tribe. Fast forward to the early 1900s when the Dutch missionaries got their hands on them and tried to convert them to Christianity. They largely achieved their goal, weening them off all their ritual practices barring their extravagant funeral ceremonies, which continue to this day and are a major attraction for nosy people like me.

You really need to experience the funeral first hand to get your head round just how other worldly it is. Picture lush countryside with rice fields and mountains as far as the eye can see, then picture motor bikes groaning under the weight of 4-5 people on them and cattle trucks full of black-clad relatives and friends driving along pot-holed roads in the pouring rain to the village of the deceased. Add a truck from each neighbouring village transporting a pig tied to bamboo poles to be offered for sacrifice and you have a less then typical traffic jam.

Once my guide and I arrived in the village we sought out the village chief so that I could give him my obligatory gift of a carton of cigarettes by way of ‘entrance fee’. The family of the deceased was sitting in a special tent receiving guests. Each time people from a new village arrived they were announced by women pounding rice and men drumming. The villagers then processed to the family’s tent with their offerings, accompanied by 2 old women chanting and 2 old men playing pipes. Pleasantries over, the men then performed a circular dance whilst the women served delicious coffee and Torajan cakes to the assembled crowd which included me and about 20 other tourists. The village pig was then taken off to be slaughtered and chopped up -some of it being barbecued and some being tied in little plastic bags to be distributed to guests to take home and cook.

And so the process was repeated for many villages by which time the smell of char grilled pig was all pervading!

As soon as the sun moved into the descendent the coffin was carried by 8 men from the room it had been laid in and paraded around before being shaken up and down to let the trapped spirit fly away. The coffin was then hoisted up onto a central structure to much laughter and whooping. Once in position it was time for the grand finale.

This bit is dramatic so stop reading now if you’re squeamish about blood or a vegetarian!

One of the buffalos which has been purchased by the deceased’s family for ritual slaughter was picked out. He was tied to a stake and then, as I watch through fingers over my eyes, the executioner slit the beast’s throat with one swift clean cut. Naturally the blood spurted out in a torrent but what I noticed through half closed eyes was that he didn’t have a single drop on his white shirt. The buffalo’s death wasn’t very swift and it shocked me that all the children were oblivious to the animal’s pain and suffering and it jumped around in circles before crashing to the ground. I admit I took a photo – just the one.

Next, with the dead buffalo lying in front of the coffin, the village chief gave his eulogy. He had a voice that rose and fell melodically as he told stories which elicited laughter and tears and he kept waving the deceased straw hat.

Finally there was a buffalo fight but by this stage I was feeling nauseated by the stench of so much killing and the muddy rivers of blood so we left, driving in silence through the beautiful countryside as I reflected on the extraordinary and I must say, shocking ritual I had witnessed.

This was a particularly lavish funeral but over the next few days, as I biked through the countryside passing through traditional villages, I saw more funeral processions (didn’t stay for the ceremonial stuff) which were simpler.

What all Torajan funerals include is the offering of a pig per village and at least two or three buffalo. The number of buffalo depends on how wealthy the family of the deceased is. The maximum number that will be slaughtered is 24, which happens over a 3 day period.

Because funerals are so expensive it can take several years for a family to amass the money. It is expected that every family member, wherever they are in the world will a) contribute and b)attend. During the time it takes to get the money together the body is embalmed but not put in a coffin, and kept in the house. The person is not considered dead, just sick. He/she must therefore be addressed by anyone visiting the house i.e. Hello, Goodbye. Sometimes another family member will die before the first has been buried and so they can share the funeral. I met a tourist who had come from a husband and wife funeral, he having been dead 5 years and she 2 years. Hard to imagine really.

The deceased is finally buried in a grave carved out of the rock face. Before the stonemason beings, a dog is sacrificed firstly to ask permission to dig the grave and secondly to make the stone less hard to chisel. Noblemen are buried up high, the middle class in the centre and the lower class at the bottom. Beside the graves are balconies with life-like effigies of the deceased. If the family of the deceased is a extremely wealthy they may also purchase a stone megalith which will be transported to a memorial site outside the village.

Though no longer a form of burial, there are many hanging graves in Tana Toraja. These are wooden coffins suspended from the rock face, in the same noble, middle, low ranking order. Many still hang precariously but many have crashed to the ground scattering bones everywhere and I reckon many of the bones are not the original ones.

Amongst all this paganism there was a burial ritual, not longer practiced, which I found particularly touching – that of a baby who had died before growing teeth. Considered pure, the baby was taken to a special burial tree in the forest. Here the body was placed upright in the trunk so that as the tree grew the sap would nurture the baby so that he/she would grow with it. The only cruelty was that the mother was never allowed to visit the tree because once the baby had been returned to nature it was deemed to no longer belong to her.

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Having thoroughly immersed myself in the whole Torajan death ritual scene, I needed some light relief which came in the form of walking through beautiful rice fields. Despite the fact that it rained almost non-stop every day (dry season seeming to have succumbed to El Nino) I regret not spending a couple of days doing some proper hiking in the area because the mountains with their sweeping views across the valley were beautiful and my guide was so knowledgeable and nice.

I’d like to say I’ll do it another time but I’m pretty sure I’ll ever pass that way again.

 

 

Bewitching Flores and Komodo National Park

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It was with a heightened sense of anticipation that I made my way to Flores (pronounced Florez), which had come highly recommended by friends in the know about unspoiled islands, world class diving and prehistoric creatures. Just a short flight east from Bali is the buzzing town of Labuan Bajo. The jumping off point for diving in Komodo NP, the main street is wall-to-wall dive shops offering day trips or the more alluring 3-4 day ‘live aboard’ experience. Fortunately, I had a recommendation from my friends at Guy’s Trust to book with Dive Komodo, otherwise I’d probably still be cruising up and down the street deciding which one to pick.

The appeal of the live aboard is that the boat takes you to the more remote dive spots i.e. those that can’t be reached in a day, plus you have the opportunity for early morning and night dives. Throwing my budget to the wind, I booked a 3 day/2 night/9 dive trip.

Somewhat randomly my six fellow divers were Canadian but didn’t know each other. Luckily they were all really nice, and more importantly, experienced divers because Komodo is no picnic. The meeting of warm and cold waters result in, strong currents, rip tides, whirlpools and several danger spots where you can get into deep water (!!) if you don’t pay heed to your instructor. I stuck to mine like glue! The trade off is nutrient rich waters bringing manta rays, sting rays, whales, sharks, dolphins, giant wrasse, cuttlefish, octopus, turtles, millions and millions of brightly coloured fish and nudibranch (both large and small) attracted to the incredible coral, making it one of the top diving spots in the world.

I’ll spare you the details of each of the dives other than to say that hooked onto a rock on the sea bed (to stop the current from pulling you away), ogling at majestic manta rays goes down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. These enormous pelagic can have a 7m wingspan and with their huge grill-like mouth could be intimidating, yet they are the most harmless, playful of all marine life. Watching a male courting three or four females is like watching a slow-mo ballet as they swoop, glide and dance through the waters. I must have seen at least 30 of these beauties including pregnant ones, babies and the rare Ninja (black) manta.

As well as the sublime diving, it was wonderful being on the boat far up in the quiet north of the national park with its stunning scenery and flaming sunsets. On our last afternoon we stopped by Rinca (Rincha) Island to see the famous Komodo Dragons. Being mid-afternoon they were a bit sleepy but a couple of them obliged by stirring from their slumbers to wander about a bit. They look like a mixture between a dragon and a lizard and think nothing of catching a buffalo for dinner or indeed eating their new born babies. A species not to be messed with!

Back on dry land I lasted a couple of days lounging around in a beautiful villa overlooking the bay before the lure of the waters got to me again and I did another full day’s diving, this time with a friend who lives in Jakarta and had flown down to organise a beach clean up for World Oceans Day. Unfortunately, this diving paradise suffers from a ridiculous amount of trash (thankfully not so much in the remoter spots), which gets washed up on Laban Bajo’s beaches. The authorities and the dive operators try hard to educate the locals – particularly the fishermen, while school children are taught the importance of preserving, not polluting their greatest asset. Apparently it’s getting better but, from the amount of trash we collected on, there is still a long way to go.

After 20 dives in 10 days my body needed a bit of a rest so I hired a local driver for a few days and set off to explore the rest of the island. A few hours in and it became clear why, unlike Bali, there’s no self-drive car rental. The roads are poorly maintained and torturous. However, zigzagging up through misty mountains with views across to the ocean then hurtling back down through coffee, banana, macadamia, vanilla, tamarind and pepper plantations before cruising along roads so close to the sea that the spray splatters the windscreen was fantastic.

My moonshine drinking, chain smoking, guitar playing driver Matteo not only had to concentrate on the wiggly roads but he also had to contend with kids (both 2 and 4 legged species), cows and dogs continuously wandering into or sleeping on the road. Thankfully he was very experienced if a little moody, especially after I politely declined his offer to share my bed during our road trip!

Looking down in spiderweb rice fields (sadly already harvested so brown rather than vibrant green), stopping off at black volcanic beaches to collect sulphur-rich blue stones, body boarding through breakers and lazing on hidden glistening white sand coves with crystal clear waters, I began to fall under the spell of Flores.

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About 85% of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Flores are Catholic though in rural communities this is welded onto ‘adat’ – animist rituals for marriage, birth and death ceremonies. We drove eight hours on rough roads and then I hiked up through dense forest for 2 hours in the pouring rain to reach Wae Rebo, one such village with about 120 people living in 7 extraordinary homes encircling a sacrificial alter. Having made a small (financial) offering to the head of the village and in return received a ritual blessing, I was permitted to stay overnight in the village. Much like a longhouse, families live under one roof, cooking and eating together but have their own sleeping areas behind doors off the communal area. The main difference is that these homes are circular, whereas longhouses are long!

I visited another Bena and Luba; similar villages, accessible by car, where I didn’t overnight but walked around (again, despite it being dry season, in the pouring rain), communicating with the villagers as best I could in bad Bahasa Indonesian, at least showing respect by trying. They spoke equally bad English but we laughed – especially when people kept saying ‘hello mister’, a greeting I have now become used to and find endearing.

A ritual which stuck in my mind for being so graphically told was that practiced on the first new born son of the chief of the village to determine if he will be a good successor. The baby is firstly placed on a high platform in the home. If he doesn’t cry he may not be wise so the next test is to place the raw heart of a chicken on his lips. No reaction is a bad sign, so the final test is to place a mark on his forehead and knock it three times against a banana tree. If the baby still doesn’t cry he is deemed stupid and sent away from the village. The same process is carried out on the next in line until a wise boy is found. The old woman who told me this is the daughter of the current chief who is the second son. Believe what you will!

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Being a small island,the few fellow travellers there are stop off in the same places (not Wae Rebo due to it’s inaccessibility), so our paths often crossed in a guesthouse or up a volcano which was nice. The most popular destination was Kelimutu National Park outside a tiny village called Moni with possibly the worst food but best coffee on Flores. Kelimutu is an inactive volcano with three different coloured lakes, which naturally have to be hiked up to for 05:30 sunrise. Is there ever a spectacular vista which doesn’t require a middle-of-the-night wake up?

Well, Kelimutu disappointed at dawn as thick clouds draped themselves over the lakes. So, back down the mountain for breakfast and somewhat bizarrely an end of year high school church service which I was drawn into by the glorious singing, before going back up, this time with the clouds dutifully lifting to reveal the reddish brown, milky blue and turquoise lakes. It’s believed the souls of the good ancestors are in the turquoise lake, the souls of the bad ancestors in the brown lake and the souls of the sometimes good / sometimes bad (a.k.a young people) in the blue lake. Every year the villagers process to the lakes with ritualistic offerings for the souls of the dead…….incongruous when at the bottom of the mountain they’re singing hymns and taking holy communion!

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One of my favourite memories of Flores was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of a rice field with a family of about 30 people spanning 4 generations, washing themselves and their clothes and generally relaxing and enjoying the steamy mountain water (sadly no phito). A few travellers drifted by but decided against getting in. Not me. Okay, so I didn’t do my washing but I had a good soak and a fun chat with the teenagers. As the sun went down I drove 10 minutes back to my homestay, whereas they were facing a perfectly normal 2 hours walk to their village up the mountain.

Having driven about 500km from west to east, I felt I had had a genuine, non-commercial experience. I was struck by the huge number of children women have, in some villages it seemed every woman had a baby slung across her back. Children seem to be independent from a very young age, which means it’s not unusual to see 4-5 year olds playing in the sea, by the side of the road, on bridges (yikes) and 7-8 years olds in school uniform carrying scythes and machetes to help out in the fields. Children of all ages, including usually recalcitrant teenagers, are really friendly and happy.

Adults too seem to enjoy life and are always welcoming. Walking anywhere takes quite some times because people insist on shaking hands and are keen to know your name, age and nationality – answers I know by heart in Bahasa. They tend to have two names, one Indonesian (every man and woman has the same name depending on if they are the first, second, third etc child), and one western, typically biblical man from the days of Portuguese and then Dutch occupation. The only shame is that almost every male from the age of about 15 seems to smoke – with Marlboro at 75p a packet it’s no surprise, while older women in rural villages chew betel which stains their mouths and what few teeth they have, a dark red.

I cant recommend Flores highly enough. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Bali nor the lovely Hindu temples (though it has disproportionately big churches everywhere), but it has bags of charm and is still a relatively hidden gem.

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Next on my agenda is the province of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi.