Finally!!! After a month in Flores, I’m bulk posting blog posts. In my village the E data is apparently not good enough to hotspot my laptop. And then even that became impossible when the signal died completely a week ago. Right now I’m sitting in a café in Labuan Bajo, literally just so I can catch up with the world a bit and get this posted! Hope you enjoy.
Finally, another blogpost! This is, unfortunately for the length, two in one. The first half is about our family’s (and Antonia’s) trip to Flores, an island in Eastern Indonesia. The second half is about my latest project, a library that is based on the same island. If you can read through to the end, you’re my favourite person!
Ten Days in Flores
Ten days is not a long time, especially when you’re driving the length of one of Indonesia’s biggest islands. Our trip to Flores consisted of a new place every night, endless car journeys and interrupted sleep. It wasn’t at all restful. It was definitely one of the best holidays we’ve done.
We started with the Kelimutu crater lakes. These are the danau tiga warna (three coloured lakes) formed from a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago. Each is a different colour: one green, another blue, and the last such a deep red it looks black. Legend has it that the lakes were formed after a massive fight between two wizards. The good wizard, Ata Mbupu, took refuge underground when it became apparent that he couldn’t win the fight – in doing so he created three deep acidic pools. The local people now believe that the spirits of the dead are kept in the lakes; the good in the green one, the bad in the black, the small children in the third.
Watching the sun rise over the lakes – golden light bringing them in to sharp relief, bouncing off the water, dancing through the air – was absolutely incredible. And then walking around the perimeter knowing that if we stood one step to the left we would fall and die… Absolutely terrifying.
The next few days saw us journeying through Bajawa territory. The Bajawa are a matriarchal society that live in Western Flores. They still place a lot of importance in traditional customs and so it is fairly easy (if you have a guide and know where to go) to stumble across desa adat (traditional villages) nestled amongst the hills. All the houses in these villages are made of wood. They consist of a first veranda for guests to sleep on, a raised inner room for cooking and the back for the family. The door is surrounded by carvings; cocks represent authority, horses prestige.
The houses are built around a central square. In the middle stands a small model house and thatched umbrella like structure – these represent the male and female presence that make up clans. The number of models show how many clans live in or come from the village. Each family has to have a traditional house, although many have normal concrete ones as well. Every time a new house is built, a big ceremony is held and a buffalo sacrificed to provide good luck.
We stayed overnight in a village called Guru Sina, out on the front veranda under a mosquito net – it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had.
And then we were back in the car for the twelve hour drive to Denge. The day consisted of sleeping as we bumped along broken roads, and two brief stops to see the Manggerai spider rice fields and Ranamese Lake.
After our night in Denge it was another early start. Seven in the morning saw us beginning the four hour trek up to Wae Rebo. Up and up and up: my white t-shirt was soaked and my breath coming in pants as we zig-zagged our way up the mountain and then, suddenly, we were at a small lookout point ringing a bell to pre-warn the villagers of our arrival.
But we still couldn’t see the village. We were literally in the clouds, surrounded by white mist and hazy green bushes and then…
The mist parted and we were looking down on to a fairy-tale village.
Wae Rebo is the last traditional Manggerai village in Indonesia. The people have no phone signal, no running water and no road access. But they have a freezing fresh spring for showering, beautiful thatched houses and coffee and vegetables and sugar and smiles. It’s incredible.
We were staying in the guest house: a small hut with a roof that formed the walls as well. Inside, it was warm, smoky and cozy. The houses are built around a central fire – the smoke makes the walls stronger. Outside, the women sat on the ground weaving ikat (a traditional woven fabric made by tying a series of knots) while children played on a smooth grassy lawn and chickens squawked around. It genuinely felt like going back one hundred years in time. It is an amazing place.
And then it was time for Labuan Bajo and our boat trip to Komodo National Park.
Labuan Bajo was a complete culture shock after the rural areas we had just been in. Suddenly we were surrounded by other foreigners and eating fancy expensive pizza in Made In Italy. That meal, anticipated for days, was one of our worst. We were tired and contemplative after everything we had seen and the restaurant was way too crowded. (Interestingly, it also had the worst toilet I had seen on our travels!).
We stayed in a lovely hotel with warm showers (!!!) and an amazing western breakfast and then headed straight to the boat the next morning. The next three days were a mix of wonder at being at sea, relaxing, swimming with Manta Rays, visiting a Taman Bacaan Pelangi library on Pulau Papagarang (more about that later) and…
Big, scaly, ugly creatures. Standing just metres away you could feel how ancient they were, the pure evil rolling off them in waves, and then they started making their slow crawling walk towards you and you were scared out of your mind.
Komodo Dragons now only exist on four islands in the world – all a four hour boat ride from Labuan Bajo. There are about 5000 dragons left. This is due to a low mortality rate for infants and eggs. Typically, a female lays thirty eggs at any one time. Only 15% make it to birth. From that number, sometimes only one makes it to adulthood. They are endangered and terrifying but incredible – remnants of an ancient world we no longer see.
That sums up our trip to Flores perfectly. Here, four hours and two plane journeys away from the development of Jakarta, life goes on just as it has for hundreds of years. Yes, there are mobile phones and TVs and cars, but the people have managed to retain their culture in a very different way to Java. It was an amazing trip – definitely a must-do if you are ever in Indonesia.
And Another Two Months
Just one week of the luxury of Jakarta and now I’m back in Flores, staying in a small village two hours outside of Labuan Bajo.
Pampa is small and quiet. Houses (wood, cement, bricks) spread along both sides of a bumpy, more-rocks-than-tarmac road. My house is halfway through – wooden walls but real glass windows and a front room with a TV and sofas! I have a room at the side: a double bed that is often shared with whichever guest can’t be bothered to go back to their house at night or my Ibu in the fear that I might be lonely. (On Saturday, I slept with three other girls – one the daughter who was visiting from university). Indonesians take hospitality to another level.
I live with Ame Alo and Ine Yus (father and mother respectively in Bahasa Manggerai), as well as their grown up son and a fifteen year old nephew. The house is huge by Indonesian standards – three bedrooms, a front room, an area to eat at the back and a kitchen. The toilet is a squat outside. The shower…
The shower is twenty paces down the road and two minutes along a muddy track. Water from an underground spring is collected in a dam and used for everything – showering, washing clothes and drinking. And, of course, being a pool in the middle of the forest it is utterly public. And so began my biggest learning curve: how to shower in a sarong.
That might sound like quite an easy feat but I can assure you it is no such thing. Luckily, I had Ibu Ellen (the librarian) to talk me through the steps.
First, tie your kain around your chest. (A kain is a traditional sarong with the ends sewn together to make a big cylinder of fabric). This is your chance to wash your face, shoulders and arms. The next step is to open the kain and hold the front between your teeth. Soap up and rinse your body. Lastly, re-tie the kain and wash your legs. You’re now ready to return to the house, wearing the soaking kain and a towel wrapped around your shoulders. God forbid it should fall – if it does and a man sees he has no choice but to marry you…
So why? Why am I in the middle of a random village in Flores, showering in a pond and squatting down to pee. The answer is very simple: Taman Bacaan Pelangi.
Taman Bacaan Pelangi stands for Rainbow Reading Gardens. The organisation was set up by Nila Tanzil and aims to improve the literacy rate for children in rural areas of Eastern Indonesia. Nila has set up 37 libraries across Flores, Papua and Maluku. In each, the children are encouraged to enjoy reading, either individually or together.
Reading has always been a huge part of my life – I struggle to think how different I would be if I hadn’t had the influences of Harry Potter and endless books on magic and fairies. Books are a way of exploring the world from the safety of your own home, a way of learning new things and seeing that your horizons are so much bigger than you ever thought possible. This is especially important for these children who, without TBP, have very little access to books. To see their excitement over reading and coming to the library is amazing – there are few Western children I know who display that same enthusiasm.
Which brings us to what I am doing.
Every morning, I’m at the school teaching English to Class 3 upwards. In the afternoons I’m in the library, playing and reading with the kids.
Teaching English is so so much harder than I expected. None of these children have learnt any English before – it’s crazy how much I assumed they would already know. I have to remind myself that at ‘The Learning Farm’ the students had already had English lessons for a number of years. Here, I’m right at the beginning. Our first lesson was Hello, my name is… Where do you come from? I decided learning phrases is better at this stage than starting right at the beginning of grammar. But seriously, it is SO hard. Children start SD (primary school) at six and end at thirteen – that means classes of thirty hyperactive children! It doesn’t help that a lot of the younger ones aren’t fluent in Bahasa Indonesia yet. Here, the local language is Bahasa Manggerai. (Throughout Indonesia, individual tribes and areas have their own languages – Bahasa daerah). Most days I end up coming home with a crazy headache and ringing ears. And then I hear them call out Good Afternoon in the middle of the street and I’m reminded why it is worth it.
After two hours of teaching and feeling like I’m about to fall asleep where I stand, I’m home again for my two hour break (naptime – everyone does it) before 3:00pm when the library opens again.
The afternoon library session is very different to the mornings. In the mornings, each class has a compulsory hour in the library: the teachers are meant to be carrying out reading activities and encouraging the children to learn from the books (needless to say, that’s something I’m going to have to push before I leave). In the afternoons, however, I want the children to be coming because they want to. At first, the Principal – Bapak Alo (I live with him) – told everyone it was compulsory. That first afternoon was a bloodbath which ended with books everywhere and Maleeha’s head feeling like it was going to explode. Totally not what I was going for. I want the children to see that reading isn’t just for school but that it is a way of relaxing as well. I want the afternoon library to be a place where they can come and enjoy reading, a place where they can discover worlds beyond the village of Pampa.
After another chat with Bapak Alo (and another and another and another – we’re still not on the same page), the afternoons have settled themselves. Now, I have a clear regular group that come every day to read and draw. I’ve also been planning other activities – today I’m hoping to get them to write a script so we can make short videos. Although I have no idea if it will work…
The children are amazing. They are all so enthusiastic and eager to learn and hang out with the bule. They are also wildly, incredibly different to children of the same age in the UK. Here, children from six years old and up are expected to help their parents on the farm, at home or in looking after younger siblings. They have so many more responsibilities than any primary school child I know at home. It’s humbling to see all those differences. But they are also incredibly funny and carefree. Every afternoon I’m accompanied by a whole crowd of running, jumping, laughing children. They are quickly becoming my best friends.
Another clear difference is their height. At first, I thought Class Six must be under ten years old. They’re actually twelve and thirteen. A rather obvious explanation to this is the diet. Everything we eat is grown in and around the village. This means that (in one season) the people eat the exact same thing three times a day, seven days a week: at the moment, labu siam (a type of marrow), nasi and either fish, egg or meat. The few times we’ve had a bit of variety, it’s been noodles and rice (NOODLES AND RICE? Carb on carb??? What is the world coming to?). Of course, all the food is really healthy but it is all too easy to see how this diet – too much nasi, not enough protein – can contribute to the Indonesian height.
Every day passes in much the same way – school in the morning, afternoons at the library, impromptu visits to villager’s houses to pukul kemiri and drink yet another glass of coffee. I’ve picked coffee beans and ground them, learnt to cook labu siam, gone to Church with the whole village on a Sunday… I’ve been questioned on my shortness, interrogated about my (made up to scare off unwanted attention) boyfriend and told that if I was to be married I would cost ten buffaloes (actually quite a lot). Life here is simple and easy, incredibly different to the comfort of Western life, but unbelievably interesting. And, inevitably, can be quite lonely.
Aside from me, there are three other volunteers with Taman Bacaan Pelangi; all boys, all from Germany, all ridiculously tall. They’re all also based in other villages across Flores and so, after Lukas dropped me off, I’ve been completely surrounded by Indonesians. That means absolutely no one who can speak English. At first, it was heartbreakingly difficult. Now, two weeks in and about a thousand times more confident in my speaking abilities, I am finally starting to feel settled. Yes, this is one of the hardest things I have done. Yes, there are times when I phone Mum in tears over loneliness. But this is an experience I will never ever forget. And, slowly but surely, the longer I spend here the more comfortable and happy I’m starting to feel. Two weeks in, I have friends, a family and a lifetime of hilarious moments!
So stay tuned for my next post – hopefully shorter and more to the point. If you’ve managed to read the whole of this, you’re amazing! Drop me a message to let me know what you think.