This post is about the beautiful Indonesian island Flores, where I was chased by dragons (for real!), swam with mantas, interviewed the chief of the indigenous Ngadha village, and much more. All to the groove of reggae:) Here’s where Flores is on the map:
I flew to the town of Ende. Again, this is not Bali and its still a low season, so there were not too many tourists around. In fact, besides me there was only one ‘bule’ (foreign) girl in the whole airport. Of course, we made friends. Alice from Sweden, the girl with the most thick and beautiful eyelashes I’ve seen:)
We both came here to see the natural wonder: the Kelimutu lakes, or the three-color crater lakes. Adventures started way sooner than expected: turns out, just the night before there was a terrible storm, and the one and only highway was in complete ruins on 17th km. In disbelief we still went to see: it was a disaster. So instead of peacefully gazing at the nature, the next morning we laced up our shoes and decided to walk over the mountain to bypass the destroyed stretch of the highway (and then back!). It was a long steep muddy and tough climb. On the other edge the path just dropped down steeply, and some local hustlers built a bamboo ladder and were charging everyone for passing. How entrepreneurial:)
After the hill, as we were driving, we picked up a backpacker couple. Turns out, they’re from Ukraine and hitch-hiking all over Indonesia, going really low-budget. In a month of traveling all around Thailand, Danil and Masha spent $100 between two of them, for example! I was so super-excited to meet them, speak Russian and share stories.
Danil is friends with a very famous (in small circles:) Russian vagabond Anton Krotov. Years ago, when I was starting my hitch-hiking ‘career’, I read his manual on hitch-hiking. Still using all the advice:) Anyway, I learnt about a new trick for getting doors open in foreign countries. Danil had this ‘reference letter’ saying that he was on a scientific journey doing an ethnographic study and asking ‘all public service employees and drivers, etc’ to provide all possible assistance, lol:) So we grabbed this letter and I went to talk to the strict Kelimutu park control, showing the letter and using a lot words about research and funding and journalism and bonds between countries, which got the security very confused and they let our big international ‘scientific’ group in for free! Our driver said this was unprecedented that they’d let anyone for free to this park:)
Anyway, Kelimutu lakes. These three lakes are of different colors and they change colors unpredictably, from green to blue to black to red… Locals believe that when people die, their spirits go to these lakes. What lake the spirit enters, depends on the deeds and the character of the deceased. A pretty spectacular view! The colors we got that day were: turquoise, aquamarine and dark olive green (almost black). The day before one was pink and another coca-cola.
On the way back we dropped off the Ukrainian friends for them to continue their journey. We hugged heartily good-bye. I am often being asked on this trip about my opinion about Ukraine and the current Russian-Ukrainian situation and such. I say, fu%# politics! I love Ukraine and its people. And if you’re stuck up in politics and all negative, I don’t wanna hang out with you anyway, no matter where you’re from.
So I was in the east of Flores, my goal was to move west, vague direction Bali:) Btw, I must say a few words about Flores. The island is an amazing combination of the sea and the mountains covered with lush tropical forests. The only highway winds all through the island, and it’s really a snake: up and down the mountains, and very curvy. People are really very relaxed and friendly.
My next destination was a town called Bajawa, where I intended to spend 1-2 days trekking and visiting local villages. I ended up staying at least 5 days there (and would have done more, but had to rush to extend my visa)
It started classy. I met a group of backpackers, they had a trek and village visits setup with a local guide, I joined, we went, it was super awesome.
We visited 4 local villages: Bena, Luba, Tololela and Gurusina. These are Ngadha culture villages. Ngadha is named after the king that used to rule the area. The architecture is unique in these villages, with its wooden houses and straw roofs. Ngadha culture combines Hinduism, Catholic and Animism traditions, which live organically next to each other, interwoven in daily lives of Ngadha people. Animism is a belief in the spirits of the ancestors. There’s a lot of sacrifices going on to ‘butter’ the ancestors (chicken, buffalos and pigs, depending on the occasion). There’re only few Ngadha villages left today.
I just went to people’s porches and hung out and interacted in every possible way.
I also got invited to try some unique local delicacy all the women were enjoying. First, I noticed that all of them have red mouths. And they were always chewing something. I asked what it was and our guide William explained to me that these are called ‘Siri Sinang”: local beetle nuts, that are wrapped in pine beetle leaf together with coral powder!
You chew it and then spit it. Your mouth turns red, and you get some kind of euphoria. I came to hang with some ladies, they offered me some of the stuff, and I decided to give it a try! William wasn’t around, so they explained to me something in Indonesian, and I just put the whole ‘package’ in my mouth and started chewing. Soon I got a body rush and a head high, which lasted for some minutes. And I definitely got super red lips. My new lady friends were very curious and were cracking up:) It was just an interesting experience and a fun moment to share with the locals.
William told us about a homestay at this even more remote village of Belaraghi. I got very interested, because few years before I did a homestay in a Laos village and it was a beautiful experience. I just couldn’t afford to go to on this ‘tour’ by myself…
On this trip, for a long time I’ve been looking to shoot some little documentary. When I heard about this distant Ngadha village, I had a ‘that’s it’ moment. Also, it was very inspiring to hear how very passionate William was about preserving the local culture and nature, educating the locals about recycling, promoting eco-tourism in the area, etc. So I pitch the idea of making a little film about preserving Ngadha culture and about William’s Eco-Tourism Center to William and he agrees! We plan to leave the next day. In the morning when I come to the tourist center, I learn that they decided to organize a big opening reception party of the center the next day. In a rush, I thought, and very close cut. With a delay, but we leave for the village anyway.
Belaraghi is one of the few remaining Ngadha culture villages and its far away. It took us like 3 hours by a motorbike on a snaky mountain road to get there. The road is very VERY bad in the end. I had to walk some stretches. If an experienced Indonesian bike driver asks you to walk, believe me, its a bad road:)
The first thing we did, we interviewed the chief of the village Antonio. When I heard ‘chief’, I expected to see some kind of shaman or something. Antonio turned out to be a simple man, wearing a baseball cap, a T-shirt, barefoot and was somewhat shy during the interview and always looking at William (who was interpreting) for support. Then I got some shots of the village. But William – who I obviously needed for interviews and going to people’s houses – got on the phone to solve some problems with the next day opening reception and slowly it got a little too dark to film. Especially inside, because there’s no electricity in the village. Meanwhile I met a lovely woman Maria. I went into her dark home, she lit up candles and started cooking. The whole room was filled with smoke from the stove fire. We had some tea, I interviewed her as well but it was already too dark, so we just relaxed at started hanging out.
Then a heavy tropical rain started and we all got sort of stranded in Maria’s home. Me, William, Maria, the Chief Antonio, and some of Maria’s family. We rolled out a straw sheet to sit on, put a candle in the middle and listened to the drops on the roof. Surreal moment! They spoke lazily among themselves, we spoke broken English-Indonesian. Maria brought out a regular Ngadha dinner – some boiled corn with sambal (spicy sauce) and also a bottle of a local moonshine liquor Arak. We finished that bottle between Antonio, William, Maria and myself, drinking from coconut shells. I taught them about the Russian tradition of toast speeches and gave a speech about Ngadha culture and their village, lol:)
Then Maria took out her beetle nut kit (nuts, leaves and coral powder:) she offered it to me and we shared some good laughs. I made this little video about beetle nuts based on that. It was such a perfect, almost intimate moment, accompanied by a tropical thunderstorm:)
Meanwhile I saw that William was getting anxious about some organizational issues, so I offered we leave when the rain stops. Do you know why we had to leave from that lost remote village in the middle of the night?? We had to find a middle-sized male pig to sacrifice (chop-chop with an axe in the forehead after a prayer) the next day to invite the ancestors to the opening reception and to receive their blessing for the work of the tourist center. (Say what??) Animism in action. That night, as we we driving back, I saw a shooting star. I wished for a pig.
I was so lucky that my stay in Bajawa coincided with the opening of the Tourist Center. It was a big friendly awesome hang-out. We ate delicious food, met lots of very nice and open-hearted locals, who sang and danced their hearts out. By the way, that was such a revelation for me to see that Flores is indeed like an Indonesian Jamaica. Sounds of reggae everywhere. Even Adele and Pink Floyd are put on reggae beats:) Everyone is super relaxed and plays some kind of an instrument. This is basically how we spent evenings in Bajawa. Video of my favorite Indonesian song (guys are way too serious because of the camera):
At the reception party I also met a representative of the Bajawa Tourism Department and the next morning I went in and interviewed Ivan, the head of the department. Unlike our bureaucrats, with whom you need to book a minute of their time a month in advance, Ivan spent like half a day talking about Ngadha no problem.
I wish I could stay longer, but my visa was running out and I had to make it really fast to another Flores town Labuan Bajo to extend it. So that evening I took a ride with William’s friend who was driving there. It was a long ride on a narrow twisty mountain road. We arrived at 4am and stopped at the driver’s house, because it was
obviously too early to go find a guesthouse. His wife was already up and mixing dough! They have a little doughnut business. So every morning she makes a ton of doughnuts which they then sell for 8 cents apiece for the local government, hospitals, etc. Since I had nothing better to do then, starting 5am I made and deep-fried 150 doughnuts:)
So I was in Labuan Bajo. It’s a harbor town and diver’s paradise. It’s located in a so-called Komodo National Park, with lots of islands and tons of marine species. My dream was to see the mantas. Before I never even heard about these creatures, but once I did, I became somewhat restless to swim with them, among them.
Initially I wanted to do an open-water course and get a diver’s certificate, but decided to try a fun dive first (Flores Diving Center) to see how my ears would react to the underwater pressure. Turns out it was a good call, because they didn’t react well:( I simply could’t equalize and my right ear was hurting, so the 1st dive I could only go down to 4 meters. Since we already were on a boat and everyone was doing two dives, I decided to try again, 2nd time going down to 9 meters, but still couldn’t stay at this depth. I tried not to be upset about this, because its not something I can influence and definitely shouldn’t force it.
Same day we went to the Rinca island of the Komodo National Park to see Komodo dragons. Apparently, these are the only dragons on Earth:) They are mean-looking, and it’s impossible to predict their behavior, they don’t give away any signs but can attack any time. They are not poisonous like snakes, but they have a lot very sharp teeth and lots of nasty bacteria in their mouths, so if they bite you and you don’t get necessary antibiotics fast, you’ll die within 5-10 months. Ugh. For a hike to see Komodos you need to get guides, who have “weapons” – long wooden forks that they stick in dragon’s snouts, should they become aggressive.
Usually these hikes are pretty uneventful, you just see Komodos lying lazily around. Almost everyone I talked to about seeing the dragons told me they were pretty unimpressed. I guess our group got lucky:) So there were a bunch of Komodos lying around, lazily walking about, two were mating, also lazily and very clumsily, but for an entire hour! Anyway, we were standing there watching and taking pics, when suddenly there’s some kind of commotion among the dragons, as if they didn’t like something. Noone knows what happened, but like 3-4 dragons start running at us! Not sure if we should panic or not, we start running uphill from the Komodos, people yelling, guides started running towards the Komodos, fighting them with their fork sticks, other guides telling us to run. So we ran a few meters but then the situation calmed down as quickly as it escalated. But we surely had some adrenaline going and a fun Komodo story to remember:)
I was still day-dreaming about mantas. So the next day I even skipped my immigration appointment and went on a snorkeling trip to a place called Manta Point. Everyone who was diving saw mantas, but heh not me:( However, I got to see lots and lots of amazing and big and colorful fishes and even a white-tip shark! However, I still wasn’t settled. I was right there, one of the best places in the world to see mantas and I just couldn’t leave without swimming with them. So having waited for a few days, I decided to give diving another try. Stubborn:) And guess what? We do the first time and suddenly I’m able to equalize and we go down the deepest I’m allowed on that dive – 12 meters. Bam! And we see tons of amazing fishes, big clumsy always angry-looking turtles, two sharks, sea cucumbers (yep, it’s a thing:) and more! Amazing! The second dive – is to see mantas. Its never a guarantee, of course, its not a zoo, so I feel anxious and excited. I’ll just skip to the end – we spent the whole hour in a company of amazing, big (4 meters in diameter), extremely gracious mantas… You can’t approach them, but they can approach you. They swam right above me, I could probably stretch my arm and touch it, that close. I was mesmerized!
I was one happy person! For the next few days all I could speak about was the mantas:) Later I took a 3-day ship from Flores to the next island. We were passing the manta point again and went snorkeling there. Interestingly, that day we saw over 20 mantas!
Indonesia is such a huge and diverse country, and Flores for sure has its unique vibe. It offers stunning mountains, lakes and sea, as well as interesting culture, friendly locals and really there’re not that many tourists (except Labuan Bajo) which I really enjoyed. Good times, memorable experiences!