Following more than a month of traveling during my semester break, here I sit in Palembang trying to muster the energy to even begin to describe my whirlwind tour of Eastern Indonesia. So yes, my life here may appear to basically be an extended vacation, but trust me, we were out there doing productive things as well.
The U.S. Embassy here supports an American program called the Access Program which serves “non-elite” teens living in Indonesia who participate in this after-school English and American culture program. I helped at a National Access Camp some of the other Fellows organized back in November, but for our semester breaks, fellow Fellow, Jon, organized a weekend camp at each Access Center across the (massive) country. Stop 1: Maumere, on the island of Flores.
Flying into Maumere was in and of itself, exciting. Looking out of the (tiny) propeller plane, you could see the mountains in the distance—under us, only water. Up until we were on the runway, I still believed we were landing in water. The landscape is so dramatic—there is sea, and right beside us, there are mountains. It was an incredible sight just walking down the tarmac.
But we had no idea what awaited us. The reception we (Jen, Jon, and myself) received upon our arrival at Maumere airport was insane and slightly terrifying. As soon as we reached “baggage”, which resembled a shelled out bombsite, SWARMS of ‘taxi drivers’ bombarded us, yelling “TAXI” “TAXI”, getting in our faces, putting their hands on our arms, attempting to claim us as their’s. It’s their sad job to wait at the airport for the one plane that lands and then hope they can bag a tourist. It was pretty scary and eye-opening. You can say no many times and yet they persist. It took ages for our bags to come out—the baggage was brought by some dudes in a pick-up truck who threw it through the hole onto the ‘conveyor belt’ which did not convey. The belt didn’t move and it didn’t go around in a circle—it was just a straight, short line, so passengers had to pass bags and boxes down the line themselves. While waiting for the bags to come, the drivers were still there, inches from our faces, saying, “TAXI” “TAXI”. It is hard to describe the assault (ok strong word) we faced, but my friend and fellow traveler, Jen, summed it up this way:
Our reactions to the onslaught of men in our faces harassing us to choose them as our driver:
Jen: silent, tears welling
Jon: stoic, shut-down
Deirdre: angry, yelling at them to go away
It was pretty amusing in retrospect but seriously stressful at the time. Finally we just picked the lucky driver and got the hell out of there. Now, we had arrived three days before Camp started, so we were going to head to Moni—a village about 3-4 hours outside of Maumere. Figuring out how to get there, on the other hand, was not so obvious. Our guidebook said you could get shared taxis (basically tricked out SUVs/vans) but it didn’t specify where one would find them. I had asked the lady sitting next to me on the plane and she had said in front of a hotel. So we had the taxi drop us there, and asked them. Our Bahasa Indonesia skills must have drastically improved over the following month of trying to figure out what was going on. At this point, one of the men who was sitting watching TV (working) at the hotel, got up, said some stuff, and walked out to the main road. Jon followed, Jen stayed with the bags, and then I went to make sure Jon didn’t die. So basically the guy from the hotel just called out on the road, waved some dudes down, and a crowd of about 10 guys come over with their big van. Slightly uncomfortable, and very relieved that Jon was with us, we were told this was our ride to Moni.
Following an awkward confrontation with an idiotic man talking crap, we (some of us reluctantly) got in the SUV. There was the driver, a guy in the passenger seat, and 2 guys in the way back, with Jen, me, and Jon in the middle row. So I am writing this after the fact obviously, but as we were sitting and riding out of town, Jen was freaking out, thinking we were going to get raped, Jon was uneasy and was sitting kind of sideways so he could see what the guys behind us were doing, and I was clueless and happily chatting to the driver in Indonesian. After the fact I realized I maybe should have been more concerned, but what are ya gonna do? What followed was literally the windiest, curviest road I have EVER been on—for 3 and ½ hours straight. There were massive boulders on certain parts of the road that had fallen off the mountains, and downed trees cutting of one of the lanes so that you had to honk and hope no one was coming from the other side. There was some feeling of carsickness all around.
Jon said later (after our safe arrival) that he thought we might get murdered and it didn’t help when Jen asked the passenger to stop smoking, and I asked the driver to turn down the pulsing house-music that really only belongs in a crappy disco. Oops!
Despite the ‘scary’ driver/passengers and car-sickness, the drive was absolutely beautiful—the mountains, valleys, and glimpses of the sea, along with small villages we passed and people out walking & working, the goats, cows, horses grazing along the road all made for very beautiful scenery.
We finally arrive in Moni and the crazy guys dropped us off at Bintang Guesthouse. A guesthouse named after a beer? Sold! Although technically bintang means ‘star’.
Jen and Jon revealed to me over dinner the deep fears they had in the car. Who knew?!
We arranged at our guesthouse to have three ojeks (dudes on motorcycles) pick us up at 4AM the next morning for the drive to Kelimutu, which is this spectacular place with 3 volcanic crater lakes—one pure bright blue, one black, and the other a deep blue. The ojek drive took about 30-40 minutes, and then you walk about fifteen minutes up, and you can watch the sun rise over the mountains with a view of the lakes. It was probably one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen. It actually made me worried that I’ve been missing sunrises all these years (I truly hate waking up early). The ojek drive up the mountain was amazing too. It was pitch dark, but so exciting driving under trees and it felt chilly like an autumn morning—and I had one of those moments where I just truly and utterly appreciated and loved my life. (ohhhh mushy I know).
Back to the Kelimutu sunrise. It was amazing and insanely beautiful. And it actually got chillier as the sun came up; a man came up to the lookout point to sell coffee which of course I bought. It drizzled as we stayed watching it, and we saw a rainbow and then Another one formed! (Double rainbow!)
When we got back to our guesthouse we just had a lazy day of naps, lunch, reading, writing, I did some yoga in a corner with a colony of ants, and then dinner. We thought we’d be adventurous and walk up a ways to another restaurant, only to find out that they had the exact same menu and food there. Ah well. They were positioned right by a waterfall, so that was cool to see.
After dinner we went back to Bintang to have a bintang (Indonesian beer). Flores is a majority-Christian island, so seeing people drinking alcohol was different, as was not hearing the call to prayer at 5am.
After our fun in Moni, we caught a much calmer van back to Maumere to get ready for the Access Camp!
Holly and Adam joined us there, and we were super excited to find that our ‘camp’ was beachside in this cute resort, with cottages along the beach!
The Maumere students were just so darn lovely. They were enthusiastic, musical, happy, and so ready to do anything you suggested. We set up 4 teams with me, Jon, Jen, and Holly as team leaders. We got settled in, made team chants and flags, and had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for snack time. (To introduce them to an American treat). Jon and I sang the peanut butter jelly time song, but the kids looked confused. It’s a strange song.
They were SUCH musical kids—all little rock stars. The camp included dramas, skits, art, tug of war, American football, poetry, eating hourly—fried Indonesian ‘treats’? Hot sickly sweet coffee and tea that is going to make my teeth fall out. The kids were awesome and we all had a great time. We had one cute little camper (although she is like 15) in tears when we left, and requested to call Mas Jon, “daddy”. Bless her heart I about died it was so cute. “Mas Jon, May I call you daddy?!” and with her little accent, so adorable. She gave us all little gifts—mine were groovy earrings made with paper clips as the backs.
So far, Flores was rockin my socks off… and we hadn’t even gotten to Labuan Bajo yet…