Friday, 3 December 2010

Riding Nirvana

Bali - part 2….

I don’t want to write too much about my time in Bali as there’s really not that much interesting stuff to talk about.
Hasten to say I had a good time relaxing on the beaches in the South and had a funny time with a friend from back home. Kate was in Bali on a 2 week holiday. We spent a couple of days having a relaxed time, drinking, eating and generally soaking up the sun.

I left the South and headed off to Northern Bali via Ubud and the volcanoes in the centre of the island.

Upon leaving Ubud a couple of days later, I headed to a place called Lovina on the North coast.
I planned to stay there for a week while waiting for a new debit card, which I’d managed to lose while sober, to be delivered to the Fedex office in Ubud.

I rocked up in Lovina and found a cheap little cottage close to the beach. Taking a look around Lovina, I stopped at a cafĂ© and asked one of the customers if they had wifi in the establishment. I instantly recognised his accent and found out that he came from Middlesbrough, a mere 10 miles from my home town of Darlington. We got on like a house on fire, united by the love of ‘The Boro’, the football team I’d supported from a small child, and our North roots. I met up with Marty and his cousin Sue, who was on a month long holiday from Australia, for a few drinks in the evening.

After having a good night, Marty suggested that I come and stay at his place in a small village 10km’s away rather than in the fairly run down and drab place I’d been staying.

I had a great week in luxurious surrounding with some funny nights out but the week was up so I headed back to Ubud to pick up my cards and make my way East towards Lombok. As Sue hadn’t seen much of the island, I gave her a lift to Ubud on my way back. It was funny to see someone new to bike travel and peoples reactions, something that you get used when you’ve been travelling awhile and been through the frenzy that is India. Sue later told me that she felt like the coolest 50 year old in town, made me chuckle.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Marty and Sue for making me feel so welcome in your home. My door will always be open if you get the chance to make your way up to Malaysia.


Getting of the ferry I made the short trip to Senggigi, a beach resort on the West coast. The town was pretty quiet and after speaking to Elvis I made the decision to leg it down to the far end of Flores to go and see the traditional whaling on Lambata. Quickly crossing the tiny island of Lombok I jumped on the 1hr ferry that took me to Sumbawa and head off East. I’d planned to take a closer look at Lombok on the way back up.


Sumbawa, being devoutly Muslim is one of the poorest islands in the Nusa Tenggara island chain, it’s a world away from the well established tourist islands of Bali and Lombok. Even though poorer than it‘s richer cousins, Sumbawa shows little signs of any real poverty. Being 3 times the size of Lombok but with a third of the people, Sumbawa is a very rural island with on the surface a very self sufficient and happy population.

The shouts of ‘hello Mr’ rang through the air as I passed through towns and villages.

I’d been making good progress on the pole holed road that runs down the length of the island, when I felt a wobble in the bikes handling, a flat rear tyre! As is always the way, flats seem to come just before dusk, time to break out the tools and head torch.
While taking the wheel off, a local pulled up and kindly offered to give me a hand, 4 hands was certainly better than 2.
In true Indonesian style, I was offered the floor in his living room for the night at his family house in the village of Empang, a short ride away. I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome from the family and his wife then set about cooking up some nasi (rice) and instant noodles.

A pleasant evening was had talking about family, our countries and giving a bit of a slide show of home and the places I’d visited round the world. He’d spent 5 years working in Bali so spoke some English.
After losing his government job a few years ago life had been quite hard and was having to resort to motorbike taxiing to make a bit of money to feed his family.

The grinding noise his bike was making told me that his scooter was in dire need of a new chain and sprocket. I offered to buy him a new set to say thank you for everything he’d done for me and so he could keep providing for his family in the future.
The next day we bought the parts and I waved goodbye to the family and headed for the ferry to Flores.

I must admit that I’d come to question the travel I’d been doing since Java and Bali. I wasn’t sure whether I’d become tired of the travel or it had all become a bit too easy and not the adventure I’d had in mind when I left the UK. Spending a couple of days in Sumbawa instantly revived the feeling that a new adventure was unfolding.


Flores differs from the other islands I’d visited in Indonesia. Formerly occupied by the Portuguese, the island is predominately Catholic which was a change from the majority of the countries I’d visited since leaving Europe over a year ago.

I landed in Labuhan Bajo the ferry port in the west of Flores and the gateway to Komodo, the home of the world famous Komodo Dragon. Sightseeing would have to wait for the time being, I was under strict instructions not to do any touristy stuff. I had plans to re-visit the whole of Flores with Helen after our visit to West Timor.

After a good nights sleep I headed off along the serpentine Trans-Flores Highway forging it’s way down the length of the country to my meeting with Elvis and a trip to the eastern archipelago.

After 14 hours and 550Km’s I rocked up at Wodong Beach Cottages 30km’s east of Maumere to smiles, handshakes from Elvis and Jamie, an Australian biker travelling round SE Asia, a plate of food and a cold beer.

You run out of superlatives to describe Flores. Eye wateringly beautiful, it‘s the Miss World of islands. Towering volcanoes, lush verdant jungle, picture post card beaches, traditional villages and friendly people, it really has it all.
Simple put, it’s the best road I’d ever ridden in my life. 550km’s of endless twisting bends on predominately excellent tarmac, through the most amazing scenery.

After 3 days on the beach spent relaxing, fishing, visiting local villages and a bat cave, Elvis and myself knocked off the last 100km’s to the ferry port in Larentuka to catch the boat to Lambata the home of one of the worlds last traditional whaling communities.

Arriving at the port it soon became clear there wasn’t a car ferry going to the islands, the locals were using the front of boats to transport their bikes. With the impossibly steep wooden planks stretched across the harbour waters we decided to err on the side of caution and stash the bikes at a hotel on the mainland and take the fast boat to Lambata. We would be backpackers for the next 3 or 4 days!

We were joined on our hour long ferry ride by a crazy, larger than life Italian guy called Paulo, the only other foreigner on the ferry and someone who would become our travel companion for the next few days.


After spending a night at the port town all 3 of us joined the locals on the 4 hour jeep ride to Lamalera, the village the whalers call home.

We found a hostel and prepared for a couple of days stay, we were all excited about the chance of seeing the whale hunt up close and personal even though our chances were slim due to the low numbers of whales taken each year, the current count for this year was 22 at the time of writing.

Lamalera is situated at the edge of a deep shelf in the ocean creating an up-welling of cold water bringing plankton, fish and other nutrients which in turn attracts the larger sea creatures such as mantas, sharks, dolphins, large game fish and of course whales, all hunted for their meat by the local fisherman.

The whalers had avoided the international ban on commercial whaling due to the small numbers taken each year and the tradition methods still employed in the process. Even though outboard motors had replaced the traditional sail boats, making fishing slightly safer, it’s still a very risky business indeed.
We’d been shown a movie at the hostel, made by one of the numerous film crews that had visited the village over the years to making documentaries about the fisherman’s way of life.

Metal tipped wooden spears are the order of the day with the harpooners diving from the front of the wooden boats using their body weight to penetrated the thick outer blubbery layer and drive the spear deep into the animal. Knives are then used to repeatedly stab their prey to finish it off.

The fisherman were usually found hanging around the beach, smoking local clove cigarettes, mending nets or making boat repairs, waiting for the shout of ‘Baleo!’ (whale) to ring out across the village when a whale is spotted by one of the lookouts on it’s traditional migration path to and from Antarctica.

Wandering around the village people seemed very friendly and there was evidence of the hunt with whale bones scattered throughout the village, some used as decoration for houses, and the almost black whale meat drying on racks outside of peoples homes.

In our time there we hadn’t managed to see any whale hunting but had wandered across a small pod of 7 dolphins being cut up on the beach will heading down for our daily swim. Even the kids of the fisherman were getting involved, cleaning intestines and washing big chunks of meat in the sea.
Once the animals had been chopped up, the pieces are then shared among all the families to ensure that every one in the community benefits from the catch, with the choice pieces going to the whalers and their families.

The only negative side to the experience was the attitude of the whalers and the hostel owners to the tourists. Even though there was never more than 5 tourists, hardly a tourist trap, there seemed to be a ‘ lets squeeze as much cash out of the them as possible’ attitude with an unfriendliness, arrogance and form of derision that I hadn‘t seen elsewhere during all my time in Indonesia.
I could only think that a combination of isolation, ignorance about the fact that the West is not paved in gold and irresponsible film crews throwing around silly amounts of money have created inflated prices and the attitude that all foreigners are rich and there to be fleeced at every opportunity.
It really tainted the experience and made all of us want to leave sooner than we might have.
A real shame because the other people in the village had been so friendly.

When I meet this attitude, which happens very rarely I might add, I sometimes wish I could throw these people into my world, the rat race of London, and see how they fair.

Despite this the 3 of us had a real laugh, re-counting stories from home and whiling away the evenings drink locally made Arak and eating fresh fish.

We made the journey back to the port where we met up with Jamie. He’d managed to get his bike on another boat that sat lower in the water allowing it to be load without much drama.
I said goodbye to Paulo and Jamie and headed back to the mainland with Elvis who planned on loading his bike on a boat and head back to the island to catch the ferry to Timor with the lads.

Back on the mainland I said my goodbyes to Elvis, he’d become a good friend, we would surely stay in touch and meet up again in the future.

I headed back to Wodong and into the middle of mass celebrations…

The day after I arrived there where 26 weddings scheduled to happening alone a 3 mile stretch of road. ‘Why all the same day?’ I asked myself. At home people strive to avoid clashes with other friends weddings.
The guy at the bungalows, who’s brother was one of the grooms, enlightened me to the situation. A priest was coming from Ende, 4 hours drive away, to do the officiating and he would only come if there was at least 20 couples getting married. The priest in the closer administrative capital of Maumere had refused to marry the couples because they had all had children out of wedlock. A bit of a faux par in very Catholic and conservative Flores.

Me and some of the other travellers had been invited to the after wedding party which involved lots of dancing, singing and copious amounts of Arak, a strong local spirit. Not too different from an English wedding then.
When we turned up the older generation, which I guess I am part of these days, were all smashed on Arak and giving full power renditions of their favourite Indonesian songs, very funny. As the night wore on the old guard staggered off to their beds to be replaced by the young teens and pumping dance music.

Chatting to the guy from the bungalow, he’d told me that it was tradition for the males side of the family to give a horse as a present to the brides family which he’d delivered earlier in the day and was now tied to a stake outside the celebration tent and the brides family to gave a pig, also present at the proceedings, and some vegetables. I pictured in my head a horse tied up outside a church in the English country side and had a chuckle to myself.

The family running Wodong Cottages had been absolutely lovely, welcoming me into the family like an old friend rather than a paying customer. It was one of the best places I’d stayed in Indonesia.

It was now time to make the ride back to Ende where I’d leave the bike and get a short flight to Kupang in West Timor where I was meeting up with Helen and heading to Justin‘s, Helen’s English mate from her days in Jakarta, and Sarah’s engagement party in the small village where Sarah grew up, 2 hours out of the capital.

West Timor..

Timor is also a Christian island but differs from Flores in the fact the majority of the population are protestant.
Making my way to the hotel and staring out the window of the taxi I noticed that Timor was much drier, more Mediterranean in it’s flora than the lush, green Flores.

It was great to see Helen again, it would be great to spend the next 2 weeks together. We hadn’t seen each other for almost 2 months. After Justin’s engagement party we both planned to travel back to Flores and spend 10 days taking a look around the island.

The day after being introduced to Justin and Sarah over beers, we headed off to her village near Soe.

We turned up in the village to lots of welcomes and handshakes as the woman were busying themselves preparing the pig and 10 chickens that Justin had purchased for the feast. It was a little difficult to communicate at first but I’ve learnt that hand gestures and miming tend to go a long way and as everyone started to relax there where smiles and laughter all round.

Sarah’s family are originally from Rote, an island West of Timor, and in accordance to tradition Justin was required to where the traditional dress for a wedding. I can only describe it as a skirt with a sash and a funky wicker Stetson with a pole on top and a bell on the end. I really had to force myself not to burst out laughing upon first seeing him, it took me 5 minutes before I could look him in the eye.

At one point we had a blessing of the engagement by a local priest and an exchange of rings, it was all very serious and I could see that religion forms a great basis of peoples lives.

There where also speeches, one of the uncles got up and asked about Justin’s intentions which led him into an impromptu speech. To be fair to the lad he did well, especially being put on the spot when he least expected it.

There was talk about when the wedding was going to happen and what he did for a living, the sort of discussions that happen in every country around the world.
What did surprise me was how openly money was discussed, something that would be a real no-no in Western culture. Sarah’s uncle had put her through school so asked for a payment in-return for blessing the union.
I must admit that in the past I’d been a little cynical about the dowry payments that are so common across developing countries around the world. After this experience my opinion has changed.

The family unit, which is more widespread than what we would call the direct family in England, take care of each other. Whether financially, looking after children while the parents work or just mucking in when there’s a problem to be solved.
The uncle certainly didn’t need the money, I’d seen his big car and house earlier that day, it was just a small token payment, a cultural tradition should we say, something that keeps the family bond and ensures the families survival and prosperity for the future.
I really started to appreciate the need for it in a country without welfare or state education.
Simply put, You look after your own.

Once the formalities had finished and the food had been eaten, Justin brought out a 5 litre drum of Arak which seemed to go down well and much merriment was had.

Justin was staying the night and me and Helen were taking our hired car back to the hotel in Kupang.

Upon leaving some of the close relatives came up to us and it seemed like they were going in for a kiss on the lips, they stopped short and rubbed noses, apparently a traditional Rote greeting for close family.
I’d only heard about this greeting in Inuit culture and seen it in the Maori’s of New Zealand on a visit a few years ago but I’d hadn’t seen it in any other part of Indonesia.
We both felt privileged and humbled to be accepted in such a way.

Helen and myself hoped on a plane and headed back to he bike in Ende.

Time to explore the beautiful Flores at closer quarters….