Over the past two years I have visited Flores three times, safe to say I've totally succumbed to this island's enchantment spell and the captivating charms of her people. My first visit in 2017 was arranged by Marsel Didi who owns and operates, Flores Journey. The friend who was to have travelled with me on that first trip, backed out at the last minute which turned out to be a great blessing for me as Marsel, concerned for my wellbeing as a solo female traveller, arranged a female guide to accompany me, her name Ocha Miraty.
I was very much a tourist on that first trip but have since struck up great friendships which have stood the tests of time, the tyranny of distance and resulted in Marsel inviting me to spend New Year in his village of Keling as a guest of his family. As soon as Ocha heard I was coming she insisted on accompanying me to Keling, it would be her first visit to this village as well. Ocha was rightly concerned to help me navigate life in the village where there is limited electricity and water, and no English speaking people. Such is the beautiful nature of friendships in Flores.
We left Labuan Bajo on 27 December in a convoy of motorbikes laden with backpacks and small boxes of items for the village. The journey out of town on the Trans Flores Highway was easy riding as the road is quite good and the views along the way over lush, jungle valleys and mountains are absolutely breathtaking. As you move further into the interior however, the roads deteriorate dramatically making for quite a few hair-raising moments, brakes squealing, near falls, a lot of laughs and stretches of walking for the pillion passengers like myself. The journey to Keling was a complete adventure just in itself, extreme tourism at its best.
Our first stop was at Wae Bobok which has a small complex of traditional wooden warungs, Asian style public toilets and a nearby camping ground which I'm told is gaining popularity with tourists. It's no wonder, the surrounding area is verdant jungle with very tall Banyan trees and a river flowing through the area. Here I was introduced to Serabi, the Manggarai version of a cookie. Serabi is like a cross between a crumpet and a pancake, sweetened with palm sugar, served warm, a delicious accompaniment to the exquisite Flores kopi, a favourite food served up frequently throughout every day.
We made stops along the way to visit Marsel's extended family in Lesem and Latung.
In Lesem I discovered I have a big nose. This theme would hilariously pursue me throughout my visit and was simply an innocent reference to my having a bridge on my nose which they do not have. We had stopped here for a rest and to enjoy lunch with the family. The various sweet aunties, female neighbours and I sat on the floor in a small, intimate circle where they proceeded to admire my big nose, my teeth, my white skin, my appearance for my age, tell me how brave they believe I am to be travelling around on my own, and to ask me about my own family in Australia. Just as I was about to say I live alone in Australia with my black cat, Marsel called out a friendly warning from the next room, "Don't tell them about the black cat, they will think you are a witch."
In Lesem and all the other villages we visited it is quite rare, if ever, to have a European guest and the lovely ladies could not resist the opportunity to discuss our physical differences and lifestyles, in the nicest possible ways. What better way to make new friends.
Our last stop before reaching Keling was in Latung. The family here offered sweet young coconuts which were quickly and expertly sliced to form a perfectly shaped, small spout to drink the juice from. After nearly a full day on the back of the bike this was both welcome and refreshing. Everyone crowded around completely fascinated when Marsel got his drone out and gave them a demonstration. Meanwhile, I was on the top of the hill taking photos of the traffic on the main street. I was introduced to a 12-year-old boy whose foot had been severely deformed by an accident with a fire when he was quite young. I felt helpless when asked if I thought it was possible for his foot to be corrected, I had to explain that I am not a doctor.
The people in this region are living in a remote setting where they rely on and respect their traditional healers. This is a blessing because access to modern, medical care is almost non-existent due to the remoteness and the terrible condition of the roads. This is a matter of grave importance to all of the families here and was frequently discussed with me. When there is a medical emergency or the birth of a child, they must carry the patient out to reach a good road where they can be transported on to medical help. The trek is difficult, over rough, mountainous roads through the jungle, roads that only permit pedestrian or motorbike access. In every case, patients are carried over several kilometres from their villages to a serviceable road to meet up with transportation. This can become further complicated if the unreliable mobile phone coverage has not permitted them to phone ahead for assistance. I do wonder if the deformity in this young boy's foot could have been prevented if the roads had been upgraded to permit cars, ambulances or trucks to access the area.
Arriving in Keling was a joyous moment, Marsel was reuniting with his family and it had been several months since his last visit home, hugs, kisses and beaming smiles all around. I received a very special and traditional Manggarai welcome to the village. In a formal ceremony, the ancestors were asked to accept me as a guest in the village and asked to protect me and the people in the village from any harm while I am there. Marsel translated the meaning of the ceremony for me which involved giving me a white and black chicken. I had the opportunity to thank them for accepting me in the village and then, as I was completely ignorant about this ceremony I sat with my chicken on my lap not knowing what I should do with it. Marsel told me to hand it back to the people on the side, they will take care of it, he said. I gave the chicken a kiss on the neck before I did so and caused a ripple of laughter throughout the gathering. Note to self for future purposes, kissing the chicken is not usually a part of this beautiful, and for me, emotional Manggarai ritual.
Written by Donna Ellice