Thursday, June 07, 2007

Vahdventure the Legend Continues

Dear friends,

I wish to notify you that vahdventure has just been reloaded.

It is reloaded with a new story of a travel: an adventure, which I made with my younger brother, Aviv, to Flores Island and its surrounding where we pretended as pirates of the Lesser Sunda.

Not pirates really. But still, this journey to East Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia, was extraordinarily amazing for us, since it carried us to encountering “jurassic experiences”, such as meeting with living komodo dragons on their remote nests; sailing and snorkeling at turbulent cold waters around the secluded islands; visiting mountainous sites where prehistoric small people dubbed as the hobbit are believed to used to live; entering a house in Ende town where Sukarno, the first President of Indonesia, lived in exile (1934-38); and, most exceptionally, hiking up to a legendary mist-covered mountain, home of Kelimutu: the three volcanic lakes with dissimilar colors.

I intended to write this story immediately as I just came back from those places, some of which I fancied as those in Jules Verne’s classic, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. I tried to recall, with a help of a little blue note and a pocket camera, some of the frenzied thoughts and feelings I had from the journey. But while cameras can easily store visual experience in their memory cards for us; the problem with feelings is that you can't film or photograph them. The best you can do, probably, is write a story, or a poem, about them. And I write this story partly because I want to give myself more time to think, and to feel of how appreciative I should be, and I am, for being able to see and experience the things in my life. Because I think life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. And I know there are no definitive and right answers in examining life, or poetry. And how I understand this story of my life may as well be different to how you see it. So please take what I have said here with a grain of salt.

I should like to tell you though, that most of the ideas in this story was written outside: on a table set on a wooden boat; on a terrace café in a harbor town called Labuan Bajo; on a balcony in my home city Bandung; or on a walk through dried fields in Flores and sandy beach in Bali. It was a blazing hot summer. Not a single drop of rain fell during the trip. Not while I was awake. And I rarely covered my head. So what you read in front of you is perhaps more of a sunstroke than a journal. But if you liked, dear friends, I want to take you to the adventure through this chronicle. I hope you will find it useful or amusing.

Please forgive me, dear readers, if I have wasted your time.
Leaving Home Never Easy
On May 18, Friday, at five past four in the morning, I was feeling so sleepy when I took a bus from Gambir train station in Central Jakarta to the airport. With 3 bags containing a dirty old map, a travel magazine and a quantity of food and cloth, my brother and I passed the cloudy dawn. The marketplace in Pejambon St. near where I live was yet asleep; a dog with three legs that usually roams there also seemed to be in a deep slumber. The only sign of life was its sniffing nose, seen from closer distance moving slowly, breathing in the cold as if it was trying to identify without looking who was walking around there.

Soon I arrived at the airport. Still sleepy. I was supposed to travel by plane eastward to Flores, several islands apart from Java. But since there was no direct flight, from Jakarta I had to first transit in Bali.

When the plane took off with care, despite still lacking of sleep, I was eased seeing through the window the morning sunrise and Jakarta Bay below me. It was a marvelous feeling to see the wing of the jet combed the clouds very smoothly, just like a knife dipped into a bowl of butter, and then wiped it on a piece of white bread, if you can imagine…

Yes, besides sleepy, I was also hungry at that time. But since I took the most inexpensive flight, I had to be content when the air stewardess gave us nothing more than a glass of mineral water, a straw, and a charming smile. Sweet enough to replace my breakfast coffee.

My first stop was in Bali. I spent one day wandering around Denpasar and its surrounding. While in there, I took the chance to meet my friends. Christian, a pianist turns a diplomat, and still occasionally a pianist; and Olive, a journalist with so many things to describe - but mainly, now, a journalist. Christian was so kind for providing us with a fine place to sleep that following night.

Also while in Bali, I noticed immediately that the local people are fond of praying. Almost in any place (including in the cars, on their dashboards) I could easily spot “canang”, a saucerful of offerings made of herbal materials that contains flowers, cookies, fruit, incense (a substance that produces a pleasant smell when burnt) and sometimes money, which they dedicated to Gods. “We seek for blessing and protection from Gods,” a public transport driver once said to me. I was so humbled to hear it. In a way I sensed as if the prayers of these people mysteriously unite the island in harmony.

In Sanur I found a mosque and performed a Friday prayer. Then I walked for almost two hours with nothing in my mind but peace. Nothing reminded me of paperwork, official visits, ab-so-lutely nothing. Just a clear horizon and the waves that were so pretty that I couldn’t stop myself from singing a tune from a cigarette ad I saw in TV years ago: “I love the blue of Indonesia… you can taste it everywhere… I love the blue of Indonesia… it’s my kind of blue…!”

Okay, back to reality.

Along the sandy beach, to the south, I watched children playing with their kites; a row of boats abandoned on the glittering sand; surfers with Bob Marley-styled hair discussing about the waves; seaside Hindu temples in complex designs; young girls with hazel eyes laughing; cafés and bars with big billboards informing us about that night’s reggae music performance; and gamelan music performers sitting around a luxurious hotel’s court entertaining the passersby. Lively, indeed.

As we got too tired to continue, Aviv and I fell asleep in front of a small shop (outside a Circle-K) located near the coast of Sanur. “Zzzz….zzzz….” We woke up an hour later, finding ourselves surrounded by madams who offered us massage service and therefore scared us.
Flower Island
On the next day, Saturday morning, my heart was in ruins when I visited the sites of Bali bombings in Legian. Aviv and I wanted to see more of that place, accompanied by Olive who was so informative.

But before midday, we already had to leave Bali. We took a smaller carrier of a company called Trigana Air. Although the airplane was small; not all seats were occupied. We could sit comfortably almost anywhere we liked. From a window seat on the second left row I observed a chain of islands below us: first Lombok, home of “Pearl Mey”; then Sumbawa, a land of wild horses; and finally… Flores. That was around 90-minutes flight.

The finest experience of this flight happened shortly before we landed in Labuan Bajo. Some cattle were seen grazing on the grass of the airport. Of course they had to be distracted first! How could we land when the animals are having lunch on that running pad? And so that was. The plane had to fly in circle twice to scare the beasts, while no airport staff was seen down there.

But soon I noticed that Labuan Bajo’s was a small airport. Only two planes come there daily. Both planes don’t stay for more than around 30 minutes before they continue their journeys. And since there was not many airport staff to assist us, we had to pick the luggage unloaded from the airplane by ourselves. Komodo Airport. That was the name. Ah, I imagined a lot of things already. Those dragons must had been waiting for us.

Labuan Bajo means harbor of the Bajau: a fishermen community of South Sulawesi origin. They are respected as traders and sailors, and feared occasionally as adventurers and pirates. The seafarers from southern Sulawesi, including Makassar and Bugis, are known in my country for their reputation. They seek their fortunes throughout the Indonesian archipelago and often set up permanent settlements, either through diplomacy or conquest, and marrying into local societies.

In Labuan Bajo I stayed in a lodge called ‘Wisata’. A clean place with an affordable price and quiet environment. The owner’s name is Pak Ramang. A good man. He and Pak Nasser, whom I consider as an uncle, helped us a lot with our plans so that the whole affair of my journey had gone better than I could have hoped.

Since my sleeplessness returned, I hadn’t much sleep those last two nights, and reading was impossible, so I decided first to take a nap. In the afternoon, I strolled the street up and down until I reached a harbor. I satisfied myself seeing small islands and fishermen boats off the harbor, drinking lemon juice, watching sunset and counting the boats. Roughly 20 of them unloaded baskets full of fish and crabs.

“Enter the Dragon”
On the next day, Sunday, I returned to the same harbor as early as at 6 in the morning. The place was quiet. Empty. Just a row of ships, and smaller boats were there. A few men, the ship crew, were seen pouring seawater on their boats. The purpose was to get rid from the morning dew which could rot the wooden boats.

I jumped into a boat that was awaiting us, and sailed with it for 3 hours until I reached Komodo Island. The were only four persons on the boat. The sea was calm; the wind fair. A clear sky; a few clouds; a spectacular view to relax my eyes. But I saw many spinning whirls of various sizes along the way. It was a sign that the currents on the bottom of the sea were actually strong. The captain of the boat, Bachtiar, was of Bugis origin. A skilled diver. He explained to me the nature of the sea: “If you’re not careful, the whirls may suck you down to the depth of the blue!” And while he navigated his boat with care; his aide, Idil, made for us coffee and tea. I couldn’t complain, you know that.

At last, after we passed a special route through several islands, which some are not inhabited by human, “Throw the anchor nooow!” Bachtiar shouted. Idil knew what he had to do. And the engine was shut off. We approached the dock slowly. But the dock was no longer a functional dock. It was heavily damaged since a day before due to a continuous strong tides caused by a storm. “You are lucky!” an official screamed from the island. “Had you arrived here yesterday, one day sooner; you might have as well been swept away by the waves.” And he pointed his finger to a distant place to show us where a boat was found after carried away by the turbulent sea.

Aviv and I jumped to the ruined wooden dock. Finally, I stepped my foot on the “jurassic park”. I had heard stories about the beasts living in this island. Giant lizards. Untamed. It’s said they could smell blood from several kilometers distance. And they have poisonous saliva with over 50 kinds of bacteria, meaning: if they bite, the victim may eventually die because of the germs. And they run fast, and can climb a tree although not spitting fire like “real” dragons. At this recount, either true or false, I couldn’t help but was feeling frightened. I watched carefully here and there just in case one of them was observing us or sunbathing near us.

I arrived in Komodo National Park. The island has been in existence since… I don’t know when, but must be very-very old. Of course. But what I know is that it was established as a national park in 1980, and was declared a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1986. Initially, it was established to conserve the unique dragon (Varanus komodoensis), first discovered by the scientific world in 1911 by a man named J.K.H. Van Steyn.
The majority of the people in and around the Park are fishermen originally from Bima (Sumbawa), Manggarai, South Flores, and South Sulawesi. Those from South Sulawesi are from the Suku Bajau or Bugis ethnic groups. Descendants of the original people of Komodo, known as “Ata Modo”, still live in the island, but there are no pure blood people left and their culture and language is slowly being integrated with the recent migrants.

Most of the not-so-many visitors (compared to Bali, for example) that come there are not Indonesians. At first the locals even regarded my brother and me as Europeans. In a sense I felt like a foreigner in my own country, cut off by the fact that I don't speak their local language at all. I can get by, but it's not a tongue I could ever move around in a way that would satisfy the appetites of my mind or my heart, if you know what I mean.

After consulting a map, we hiked further into the island accompanied by a ranger named Willy. He carried with him a long stick made of strong wood to protect us from komodo dragon’s attack. I carried a bottle of water. I prayed a lot. At that time I didn’t know Aviv brought in his bag our lunch boxes. He could have left it on the boat instead of carrying it. I was worried if the smell of our delicious food attracted the dragons, you know.

The Park is situated in a transitional zone between Australia and Asia. Threfore its terresial ecosystems are also affected by both continents’ flora and fauna. The climate is a lengthy dry season with high temperatures and low rainfall, and seasonal monsoon rains. I walked on the track, watching the nature. So cool. I saw many unforgettable beautiful sceneries, sometimes an open field with wild orchids growing between tall grasses, “kedondong hutan”, tamarind trees, a deer, two wild boars, kaka too birds, a water buffalo, and many more. But when I saw the first dragon, I ran this way and that like a distracted hen.

Aviv and the ranger calmed me. It seemed that the komodo was not hungry yet. We could take some photographs, and we continued our journey. I never realized before that my country has many such beautiful islands. The landscape was hilly; partly dense with forest, and partly dry. We spent two hours on the island since we had yet to visit another one: Rinca Island.

Before we went to Rinca, we sailed to a place called ‘pink beach’. A solitary place with no other people to be seen. Our cell phones were out of signal coverage. In this place we amused ourselves watching beautiful underwater sceneries. We jumped into the cold water, each wearing a swimming gear, a snorkel and a goggle, and floated, seeing little fish playing between colorful corals and seaweeds. The sunlight made them looked so lively. And as you know, Indonesia is the only equatorial region in the world where there is an exchange of marine flora and fauna between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Now you can imagine how beautiful it is. A great day for freedom.

With Bachtiar on our side, I felt safe despite the fact that the straits between Rinca and Flores, and between Komodo and Rinca, are relatively shallow with strong tidal currents. The combination of strong currents, coral reefs and islets make navigation around the islands in Komodo National Park difficult and dangerous.

While thinking about the komodos, my mind was travelling to these sentences by Leonard Cohen: “A person who eats meat, wants to sink his teeth into something. A person who does not eat meat, wants to sink his teeth into something else. If these thoughts interest you, for even a moment, you are lost.”

By sundown, we were already on our way back from Rinca Island to Flores with glorious feelings in our hearts. Each of us had written something new in the pages of our lives. I believe that when a man visits a new place; his aura will somehow intertwines with that of the place he visits, and therefore will makes the aura bigger.

Anyway, during that last trip on the boat, I wrote a story as Aviv pretended himself as Captain Jack Sparrow.

We approached Labuan Bajo when the night was already dark. So was the dimmed little town. But I could, nevertheless, distinguish the water, the islands, the houses, the boats, but hardly anyone boarding them. The world was lit by stars which were scattered without number over the whole sky. I didn’t remember ever having seen so many stars. You literally could not have inserted a fingertip between them. The sky was reflected in the water, and the stars bathed themselves in its depths and trembled on its ripples.

I had a sound sleep that night.

Homes of the Hobbits
I left the harbor town on the next day, Monday morning, by a public transport. I went deeper into the eastern part of the island. The road was narrow, climbing, and it was the only way that connects all the major municipalities in the island. From the easternmost part to the west-end, it was the only small road used by all kinds of vehicles. Don’t imagine to find any sedan. Traveling by land was challenging, mainly because of two things: rocks may slide from the hills on the roadsides and block the road or even hit the car; and the route was like a spiral: it made me dizzy to turn left, right, left, right, too often - even when in low speed.

By midday I arrived in a larger town called Ruteng. It is the capital town of Mangarai Regency, situated between two mountains, which are parts of Mandusawu Mountains. It has fresh temperature and abundant supply of water, and therefore the locals grow Robusta coffee, Arabica coffee, vanilla and clove.

After having less than 10 minutes break, I was already in another car that took us to Liang Bua. A site of prehistoric ‘hobbit’ people, homo floresiensis. By car, we needed one hour to get there. The road was in awful condition: we saw piles of stone every here and there. According to the driver, Yanto, those stones were to be used for fixing the holes one day. But then again, while the holes remain as holes, let’s enjoy the rock and roll!!!

Liang Bua comprised of three caves hidden behind peasants’ banana and maize fields on a volcanic mountainside. The biggest one, with a tunnel that leads into a hidden dark room deep inside the earth, was “decorated” with colossal columns of stalactites and stalagmites. Moist, with bats flying above our heads. I had to lower my body in order to be able to pass a narrow hole that leads into a wet place believed as the home of the ancient people. We carried flashlights. Knowing of our visit, more and more children from surrounding village joined us in our band, and we became so loud because of their laughter and singing. All of us went into the caves. Those kids found no trouble when entering the small caves as their bodies were yet shorter than adults.

Homo floresiensis, or “Man of Flores” is the name of, a possible special in the genus Homo, remarkable for its small body, small brain, and survival until relatively “recent times”. Flores was never connected by land to the islands of Java or Borneo. This is significant to say because Java was connected by land to Asia during periods of low sea level in the historic times, called Pleistocene, and Java supported a long-lasting population of hominids. (Until now in Central and East Java many of these prehistoric sites can be found). Flores was never connected, and archaeological remains on Flores as early as 800,000 years old have led some scientists to suggest that humans must have developed watercraft by that time.

After we had enough with the ‘rock and a hard place’, we continued our journey. Next destination was Ende town. But the trip was not possible to be made without a break. Therefore we stopped in Bajawa, the coldest town on the island and sleep there for one night.

Relics from the Past
On Tuesday morning, I went further to the east, to Ende, the capital of a regency with a same name, located on the southern coast of Flores Island. With a population of around 60,000 residents, it is the biggest city on the island. It lies at the foot of Iya, Ipi, Meja, and Wongge mountains.
On the way there I stopped in four traditional villages. The people there live in huts, old huts. Probably the villages are more than a hundred years old. I was impressed at seeing megalithic tools such as stone altars, tombs, and more utensils like those in the Flintstones movie, still being used in their daily life.

But the main destination for us that day was the house where Sukarno used to live, now a museum. Sukarno was President of my country from 1945 to 1967, and the old house was occupied by Soekarno during his years of exile in 1934-38. Most of the old furniture are still there. While was exiled in Ende, Soekarno wrote and held several plays. Among the plays were Rendorua Ola Nggera Nusa (Rendo that stirred the archipelago) and Doctor Satan, a revision on the story of Dr. Frankenstein.

I was moved while seeing his painting. And his old violin, now in sad condition. The rooms where he used to receive guests, and his bedroom. The house was built in 1927.

The place was mystical. I entered a room where Sukarno used to meditate. On its floor you could see that the marks of his hands and forehead are still clearly visible on the ground. A man who takes care of the house then showed me a well that Sukarno built and dig. And from it he poured for us a few buckets of fresh water, with which I quenched my thirst.

Before dusk, I bid my farewell to Ende, and continued my journey to a higher place: Kelimutu.

The Call of Kelimutu
James Hetfield and his friends, Metallica, wrote a song called “The Call of Ktulu”. This is a different thing. Kelimutu is a volcanoin central Flores Island, containing three summit crater lakes of varying colors. The western lake, called by the locals as “Tiwu Ata Mbupu”, (means ‘lake of old people’), is commonly blue. Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (lake of young men and maidens) is commonly green, and Tiwu Ata Polo (bewitched, or enchanted lake), red. These colors vary periodically due to something I found hard to explain.

As you may know, the geography of Indonesia is dominated by volcanoes that are formed due to subduction zones between the Eurasian plate and the Indo-Australian plate. And the volcanoes in Indonesia are a part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. So you can be the Lord of the Ring here. Haha!

Although Kelimutu is not the most active volcano, the scenic lakes are a popular destinationfor visitors, and they have been the source of minor eruptions in historical time. The summit of the compound is 1639 m high.

In order to get the best scenery, I had to wake up at 4 in the morning, and go to the mountaintop before the sun begins to rise. At that time, we were also racing with fogs. If we arrived first, the splendid view would be ours to see and to photograph. But if the mists were faster, it might take hours before the wind blows them far.

I was still lucky, the mist and I arrived at the same time. So I still had one hour to see the yellow sunrise illuminating the 3 lakes. What a breathtaking picture to remember. Now that I am writing this, I feel like I see it again in front of me.

The wind was heavy, and the road was steep and slippery. I covered myself with warm cloth and shawl, and ate a chocolate bar to keep myself from cold. My hair was without form, I let it that way as it made me feel more the sense of freedom. A feeling which becomes a luxury for me these days.

Aviv carried his camera tripod, which I named ‘tongkat Nabi Musa’, or Prophet Moses’ staff.

We stayed there nearly until 8 in the morning. And we contended ourselves with hot noodle-soup, and before 10 am, we were already on the way back to the west. The longest journey: 14 hours in a car. With a few times stops for prayer, lunch, drinking coffee, and Yanto buying ‘cap tikus’, a spirit made of a kind of palm tree.

I arrived in Ruteng while it was already dark. I slept one night there, and in the morning already off to Labuan Bajo. I met again with Pak Nasser, the helpful man. When we met again, it was difficult to say who between us was the happiest. He then took us on his motorcycle to his home in a village 4 kilometers away. Off road. Through a swap, rocky track, passing two rivers (the motors were transported by a canoe). And then we were hosted in his home, which was built on tall poles and which had no electricity. So modest. We chatted with his entire family members, almost 20 people, lit by candles. Just fried banana and hot coffee. So fine.

The next day, Friday, was my last day in Flores. Aviv and I visited a mosque near the harbor, before we left Labuan Bajo at noon, back to Bali, then to Jakarta, and then straight to Bandung that night.

I arrived on my own "true" bed at 1 in the morning with already so many tales to share. I wouldn’t sleep immediately, though I was too tired to start to write them.

But hey! Now that the story is ready, I can sleep and visit those places again in my dreams. I am home. Have a good life, my friends and be adventurous.
The true voyage of discovery is not to go to new places, but to have other eyes.”
(Marcel Proust)

Thanks to Aviv, Eming, Emilia, Ami Nasser, Pak Ramang, Sodik, and Adnan Afiff.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

While in Kelimutu

A morning sun.

A great journey.

Kelimutu, Flores, 22 May 2007.