Monday, August 28, 2017

Beyond Bali to the Kelemutu Cauldrons of Flores

Wednesday, August 9th

Our host quietly opens our courtyard door a little before 4:00 A.M. It is dark as he takes one of our suitcases to the waiting minivan, along the narrow walkways edging the rice paddies and down the dirt road of Pennestana. Alisha and I carefully make our way by flashlight to meet the van. Our second suitcase mysteriously arrives on a motorcycle and after thanking our host, we slide into the back seat for an expected 1 ½ hour to the airport. There is no traffic and in less than an hour, we are dropped off at the domestic terminal. We are an hour earlier than necessary but are allowed to enter the terminal after showing our itinerary at the terminal door. Our luggage is scanned and when the ticket counter opens at 6:00, we check our bags and go upstairs to wait for our departure. We enjoy an exorbitantly expensive airport breakfast with excellent frothy Cappuccinos and both Alisha and I have a little time to write in our journals.

Although our plane boards earlier than expected, we wait on the runway for nearly 30 minutes for a 2 hour flight to Labaun Bajo.  In Labaun Bajo, se stay onboard as passengers disembark and others board for our  flight to Ende. When we land and collect our luggage in Ende, our guide is waiting outside of the tiny terminal with a paper sign printed with our names. Yance flashes us a big smile and speaks good English. As he walks us to his vintage Toyota minivan, it dawns on us that our private speaking guide and driver are one in the same, not two different people. Our first stop is for lunch and the stir fry vegetables that we order are watery but edible and the Nasi Goring (fried rice and mystery meat) is sustenance only. I remind myself that we did not come to Flores for the cuisine. As we exit the restaurant and to humor Art, I snap a photo of Alisha and Yance in front of our minivan’s license plate. The adventure begins!

Alisha and our guide Yance in Ende, Flores

I text it to Art as we pull away from the curb, fingers crossed that the internet connection will hold until the photo is delivered. Ende is one of the main cities on Flores and motorcycles sandwiched with families jostle past us and trucks sardined with passengers weave along the main street. Yance asks us if we would like to stop at the local market and I immediately know that we will like this young man. He advises us to ask permission before taking photos of the people. Alisha has never experienced a market like this one and we wander the local fruit and vegetable market greeting all those who stare at us with a smile and a warm hello.

Garlic or Shallot farmer
Gregarious Pauline

We shake hands and make serious eye contact
Marty at the Ende Market

Many want to shake our hands and they tell us their names. Alisha asks each person if she may take their photo and without exception, they all enthusiastically nod and smile for the camera. Alisha has the better camera, so I defer to her to take the majority of the photos and when Pauline, a woman of undetermined age, asks to have her photo taken, Alisha is into the methodical rhythm. She patiently shows each person their photo and in return is rewarded by more smiles. The majority of the mature and older women grin with teeth stained by years of beetle nut chewing.  The market stalls are under a shaded roof and the vendors all sit on a raised platform several feet above the hard-packed dirt. Their baskets of beautiful fruits and vegetables are all artfully arranged.

Women at the Ende Market
Man filleting his catch
Man proudly showing us his catch for the day

Tiny dried fish
Young man making coconut milk

On the outskirts of town, Yance stops at a pedestrian suspension bridge and we walk across the river. Looking down we see two young men who are doing laundry and have their washed clothes laid to dry across the rocks.

Men washing clothes in the river
Marty and Alisha, suspension bridge

When we reach the other side and look back a group of older women are crossing behind us. They are obviously going somewhere special, dressed in hand woven, Ikat sarongs and wearing embroidered and lacy blouses. One of the older women is especially gregarious and greets us excitedly with a wide grin stained by beetle nut. She hugs me and is fragrantly perfumed. She immediately organizes a photo shoot and Alisha and I crowd into her group and Yance takes our photos. I ask where they are going and they disclose that they are going to give offerings for a wedding. 

Women dressed in their best, on their way to make wedding offering
We continue our drive towards Moni, stopping at rice paddies and viewpoints along the way. We stop at Saga Village, a traditional village that since the 1992 earthquake and tsunami is mostly uninhabited. Deana, a wonderful local guide who speaks perfect English explains the village culture and the earthquake devastation that befell the village.  There are hundreds of steep stone hewn steps to climb to the top of the village and I push myself to make the climb and keep up with the others. At the top of the village our guide points out many large stone slab graves where casualties of the earthquake are entombed together.

Stone slab graves, Saga Village
Deana, Yance and Marty, Saga Village

Looking down from the top of Saga Village

Traditional houses in Saga Village
Carving detail

A few of the traditional houses are still inhabited and we encounter our first Floridian who seems a little less than pleased to see foreigners traipsing through her village. The  woman eyes us suspiciousy but when her grandchildren step from a darkened doorway and Alisha offers them sour apple toffees, the woman breaks into a broad beetle stained grin.

Saga Village children
Saga Village woman, chicken and dog

Traditional Saga Village house
Maneuvering back down through Saga Village

My legs shake on the steep climb down the rock hewn stairs and I know that I will be in pain tomorrow. We accept Deana’s offer of coffee at her home and drink the strong grainy brew from glass cups, sitting outside her simple house. (No milk is offered.) The woman is articulate, teaches English to the village children and is doing her part to make a change through education. We tip her what I feel is a modest amount, to go towards her projects, and she beams with pleasure.

Afternoon coffee at Deana's home in Saga Village
Our afternoon drive towards Moni is past fields of rice terraces back lit in the afternoon light.

Panorama view of the rice terraces
Rice terraces on the way to Moni
Rice terraces on the way to Moni

All is breathtakingly beautiful and it is after 5:00 p.m. when we check into our simple but newly built guest house. We have a second story view room of the street below and the fog is creeping into the valley beyond. We are welcomed with hot cups of tea and sit with Yance on our upstairs balcony while he gives us instructions tomorrows pre-dawn hike to the Kelemetu cauldrons.

Tea on the balcony of our Moni hotel
Our room is sparkling clean and new and the bathroom facilities are 5 star for this part of the world. After cleaning up, we set off down the street to find dinner. There seem to be just two restaurants in town and we climb the steep stairs of one and order dinner. The waiter is less than charming but we presume it is the language barrier that makes our interaction awkward.

Positive vibes and cold beer at the Moni Restaurant
Alisha’s macaroni with tomato and fresh cheese is bland and the potato croquettes are mushy. I order chicken cordon blue in hopes of getting a few bites of identifiable meat and it is edible protein only. We ask to take our leftovers back to our room, assuming that a few bites of chicken early morning before our hike to Kelemetu will give us energy. We want to let our family know that we are safe but the restaurant has no internet and after dinner we walk to the other restaurant with hopes of having a drink and sending e-mails but their internet is also down so we return to our room and go to bed. 3:30 A.M. will come much too early.
We wake at 3:30 a.m, dress quickly and open our chicken to go box. It is swarming with ants and we hurriedly put the box outside our door.  At 4:00 a.m. we meet Yance downstairs and he calls our hiking guide who arrives minutes later. It’s about a 30 minute drive to the parking lot where we begin our hike. The muscles in my legs are screaming from yesterday’s climb to the village and we are climbing the uneven stairs to the Kelemetu craters by flashlight. There are times that Alisha needs to give me a hand up a steep stair or stabilize me. We are among the first to reach the summit where we will watch the sunrise unfold over the three Kelemutu craters. In the middle of the viewing platform is an obelisk atop a stepped stone pyramid. We have our choice of seats and choose to sit on a top stair facing in the direction of the sunrise set to unfurl. We buy two cups of thick sweetened coffee, mixed with hot water in glass tumblers and sit and wait for the sunrise.

Panorama view of sunrise at the Kelemutu Craters
It is cold but we are layered warmly. John and I were here 10 years ago and he shimmied up to the top of the obelisk to watch the sunrise. Ten years ago the coffee tasted much better, not because of the quality but because a single venerable man had hiked with his thermos of coffee to sell a few glasses to the less than 30 travelers gathered to watch the sunrise.

Flash back to 2007. John sitting atop the obelisk to watch sunrise over Kelemutu

Today there are over 300 crowding the platform and pyramid waiting for the sun to rise. The sunrise itself is a bit of a letdown but I am happy to be sharing this experience with Alisha. Dawn creeps in slowly and a rosy glow illuminates the horizon turning to a brief blaze of vermillion. The mountain ranges beyond are a montage of grey and black cut outs and the mist filled cauldrons gradually turn from black pools to turquoise.

Morning snack vendors

Vermillion sunrise

The sun peeks through the clouds over the Kelemutu Craters

Cloud filled Kelemutu crater
Alisha, cloud filed crater, Kelemutu

Two turquoise water filled Kelemutu craters
Walking back from the Kelemutu craters
As the morning brightens, the crowds disperse and walk along the viewing rim of the cauldrons. Many people are taking selfies and we notice a man about to take a photo of his two daughters and Alisha offers to take all of their photos together. They reciprocate and we end up returning down the mountain with Jan and his two lovely teen age daughters, Marije and Famke. We are apparently on similar itineraries and find ourselves again in their company as we walk to a nearby waterfall. The waterfall is pretty enough but our stomachs grumble and we want to return to our hotel in the village for breakfast.

Bather crossing a bamboo bridge
Alisha and Marty at the Moni waterfall

A unappealing breakfast of cold white toast, overcooked omelets and pancakes without syrup, is served on our balcony. We wash the tasteless breakfast down with grainy black coffee. Alisha takes the ant infested chicken and our leftover breakfast downstairs to feed to the hungry village dogs and returns crying. She tells me she made three dogs very happy but had noting left when a fourth arrived, ribs protruding.

Moni bus passing below our balcony
Breakfast on our balcony, Moni

We drive the road back to Ende where Yance fills the vehicle with gas. There is a long line for refueling and I feel momentarily vulnerable as dozens of motorcyclists and truck drivers watch Alisha and me when we walk to find a toilet. Our next stop is at an A.T.M. and my blood pressure rises when I mistakenly insert the wrong “blue” card, enter my pin and find myself locked out of the machine. I step away, assess the situation and realize that I have inserted a credit card instead of my A.T.M. When I insert the correct card, the machine spits out the maximum withdrawal equivalent of about $80.00 and I am relieved to have the thick but confusing stack of rupiah in my wallet.

Ende City
Ende City

A little beyond Ende, we pass by a beach side village with a large mosque and a bit further on we stop for lunch at the Blue Stone Beach.

Fishing village and Mosque 

The roadside cafe is colorfully decorated with bright parasols suspended on wires and there are stairs down to the remarkable blue stone pebbled beach. A wooden two person swing is several feet out in the surf and after ordering our lunch, we climb the stairs down to the beach and Alisha swings out over the waves. The concept is so simple but delightful and I wonder why I have never seen swings in the surf before?

Surfside Swing at the Blue Stone Beach
Blue Stone Beach Restaurant
Blue Stone Beach Restaurant

Marty with blue stones
Blue Stone Beach

 The wet stones are all a lovely blue color and we wander the rocky beach trying to find a few perfect stones to take home as souvenirs. 30 minutes later our barbecued chicken lunch and fried potatoes are ready and we choose a shady raised palapa and sit uncomfortably cross legged on the mat and eat. Even though we have only been on Flores a day and a half, the food so far has been terrible and we desperately hope that our lunch will be edible. Although our puny chickens have little meat on their bones and picking the bones is a messy business, lunch is good and we leave satisfied.

Marty and Alisha

Chicken lunch at Blue Stone Beach

We have a long afternoon drive and cut inland across the island to the other side. The terrain is diverse and the sculpted hills glow golden in the afternoon light.

Golden hills crossing inland to Riuing
Boys wave from passing truck

Worried that we have not been able to check in with our husbands since arriving, we ask Yance to find us internet at the next town. He stops several places trying to find a “hot spot” on his cell phone but to no avail. Alisha rides shotgun in the front with Yance and I doze in the back seat of the car until we stop at a viewpoint overlooking Riuing and the coral islands beyond. The sun is low and islands float on the silvery blue horizon.

Afternoon view of the 17 Coral Islands
Island view over Riuing
Fifteen minutes later we arrive in Riuing, a tiny fishing village and pull into the Delmar Cafe Hotel for the night. The small hotel is tucked in a jungle of foliage just off a dirt road in the heart of the village. When we arrive there is no internet, no hot water and no electricity but the room is comfortable and clean and we quickly take cold water rinse offs by flashlight. Our new Dutch friends, Jan and his two  daughters have also just arrived and they join us for a walk through the village down to the pier.

Homes in Riuing Village
The road through Riuing Village

Ten years ago, the two nights we spent here were a highlight of our trip and I confidently lead the way through the village in search of the waterfront. The village children appear from every doorway and beg to have their photos taken. Alisha takes the majority of the photos and patiently shows each child or group of children their images on the screen and they giggle with delight.

Riuing Village girls
Riuing Village children

Before long, we reach the edge of the fishing village and walk out along the long cement pier. At the end are two young men, fishing and smoking and leaning on their motorcycles. They greet us with curiosity and happily pose for photos. A smile, a few exchanged words and to see their images on the back of our cell phones are all they wish in return for their photo.

Mangrove passage
Riuing fishing village

Young men and their motorcycles
The Riuing pier

It is nearly dark when we walk back through the village to our guest house. The generator is now on and we plug in our cell phones and walk the few steps to our hotel’s open air restaurant. There is no menu but we are showed a plate of two fish steaks along with an eel like creature. We choose one fish steak and share a large Bintang beer as we wait for our barbecued fish to cook. Our Dutch friends soon exit their rooms and sit at a nearby table. When we see Jan checking his e-mail we ask if he has wi-fi and he explains that he has a hot spot card for his phone and offers us the use of his phone to e-mail our family back at home. This is our first official contact with our family since leaving Bali three days ago. Our meals arrive accompanied by French fries and stir fry vegetables and the fish is delicious and the accompaniments reasonably good. Alisha and I share a second beer and retire to our room. Tomorrow will be a big day of snorkeling coral islands and visiting the flying foxes in the mangroves.

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