I have met so many impressive people on my travels, including someone I now call a friend, Marsel. For me, the unsung beauty and incredibly rich culture of Flores is perfectly embodied by Marsel. He runs a successful tour business, and spends a lot of time in his community working on ways to improve village life for his family and friends in Flores, and despite all of this he is warm and humble with a killer sense of humour.
Marsel grew up in the village of Keling, which is in the Masang Pacar District, north of Labuan Bajo. His family farmed rice and vegetables, and after school each day Marsel would often have to help out on the farm or by collecting firewood. But he says that his parents were fair, and once his chores and homework were done, he was free to either go exploring with his friends or play soccer in the village.
Every day he walked an hour each way to school, and by the time he was in the fourth grade it was decided that he would move in with his aunt who lived much closer to school. This gave him more time and energy for study and homework, and shows the importance that Marsel’s family placed on education. Once he reached high school, boarding school was the only option, and he looked forward to long weekends once a month back at home on Flores with his family.
Marsel recalls his parents saying to him and his two brothers and two sisters: ‘don’t be like us.’ They would tell him that life is a long journey and encourage their children to make a better life for themselves. As people who lived off the land, earning an income meant hard physical labour, and they were determined to give their children every opportunity to learn at school and create a different life.
Marsel moved to Bali in 2009 and studied English at university until 2012. His desire to travel and see the world took over, so he left university and went on an adventure to Australia. He decided he was finished with university, but not with learning and made it his mission to learn fluent English while in Australia. Since then he hasn’t looked back, setting up and growing a successful business and life as a young entrepreneur.
A natural host and friendly person, Marsel started his tour business in Sanur, taking people to Flores to experience its unexplored beauty. When he first started, the demands of the business meant that Marsel could only get home once a year, or sometime once every two years. Now he goes home five to six times every year, always with a tour group and always to stay a little longer to see his family.
The influx of tourists to Flores has changed the economy of the island, providing new opportunities for many families. Of course, there are both good and bad elements to tourism, but Marsel feels that conservation keeps the landscape pristine and beautiful, and the tourist dollar offers so much to the people of Flores.
His village has one small dirt road that leads to the main road, connecting the village to the outside world. The dirt road can’t take cars, meaning that the only way to get from the village to the main road is by foot or motorbike. It’s a one-hour journey in good weather, and during the wet season it can be virtually impossible to make the trip. Marsel has ambitions to put in a proper sealed road which will help the people in his village get to work, school or even to access medical care more quickly and safely. His next trip home will be in late September when the local election is running. He wants to go home to support his uncle and vote for him, as he believes he will be able to bring about positive change in the village. His uncle is a leader in his village, prominent and well respected, and Marsel is working hard to ensure he too can go on to similarly help his home town.
He is now in a position where he can help his family and has brought them to Bali to see where he lives and works, and sends money home to help with his younger siblings school fees. Every time Marsel goes home, he feels as though he is falling in love with Flores all over again; the magic of home, the familiar faces and places, the smells and the food he grew up with. And while he is happy for now in Bali running his successful business, he looks forward to returning to his village home where he hopes to become a community leader and effect positive change and growth.
In earlier articles, we went into depth about the spiritual life in Flores, which is a delicately interwoven mix of traditional church-based religion and animism. I asked Marsel how people combine these two very different principals and the only way he could explain was to say that it offered a freedom to people – pray how you choose to pray, respect those who have gone before you, and understand that each faith is important to your ancestors as well as your current lifestyle.
Marsel gave the example that if someone dies, you join your family at the gravesite to celebrate their life with a feast of traditional food, but then you may also go to church afterwards to pray for their soul. For example at Christmas and New Year, they will spend hours at church but will also spend time cleaning the graves of loved ones. They invite the departed souls to join the family and friends at the house to celebrate the occasion, in a beautiful blend of faith that allows them freedom and balance in their beliefs.
Naturally I had to ask Marsel for his top things to see and do in Flores as a tourist. The list that follows is really just a starting point, but gives you an idea of how much time you should allow to make the most of your trip to Flores.
Komodo and Rinca – for the National Park, diving and Komodo Dragons
Kelimutu Lake (the three coloured lakes in the volcano crater)
Spiderweb rice fields
Rangko Cave – he suggest around 3pm when the light in the cave is the best and you can see more
The various beautiful waterfalls all over Flores, some only 1.5 hours away from Labuan Bajo
For nightlife, Marsel suggests Paradise Bar for its great music and Le Pirate which also has a pool. And he says you’ll never run out of great warungs or restaurants to try.
I spoke with Marsel just a week before going to Flores myself so I took note of all his suggestions…stay tuned for my ‘discoveries’ in the coming weeks.
As always we’d love to hear from you, whether you are visitors to Flores who fell in love with the islands, or residents who have their own stories to tell. Get in touch to feature on The Voice of Flores.