From Larantuka there’s a main road that runs across Flores from East to West; by all accounts a beautiful road, in good condition, and heading the direction I was supposed to be going. So naturally, I didn’t take it.
Instead I turned North, into the little north-eastern nob of Flores, where the road markings on the map all seemed to peter out. I thought I’d take a look.
Having slept in the hotel car park and lit on out in the grey predawn, I’d gotten a satisfactorily early start. I rode through the somnolent early morning in the villages, past the women and girls carrying containers for water, past sleepy goats and old men smoking their first cigarette of the day. If I was going to be honest with myself, I was feeling pretty wrecked and desperate for coffee, maybe some food; but there was nothing to be had. I was far too early, and soon I was far too rural: no-one here was buying and selling prepared food.
So I kept riding. Gradually the light came up, and the colours of the jungle unfolded around me. The narrow bitumen disappeared and soon I was up on the pegs, navigating rocky tracks interspersed with treacherous boggy patches.
I had no idea where I was going. At each junction, I’d choose the slightly-less-boggy looking path. It took me away from the coast and into the hills.
Suddenly the ground dropped away to my left and I saw water, far below, through the trees. What is this place? I parked up Beastie and went as close to edge as I dared: there, far below, was a round crater lake in the middle of the jungle.
I walked a little further and found a kind of bamboo treehouse leaning out over the void. I didn’t know who it belonged to; there was no village, no one around.
After a few minutes, however, a toothless old man appeared walking along the road, swinging a machete. He said that I should climb up into the treehouse, but later, when the local people were there.
He continued on his way. Another couple of men came along with machetes, asked me where I was from. After we’d exchanged greetings, one of them continued walking – they clearly had work to do somewhere – but the other bloke hung around to leer at me awkwardly and ask me if I was married. After five minutes, I’d had enough of that.
I turned the bike around and headed back towards the last village, determined to track down a cup of coffee. It was much too early to be dealing with old mate and his commentary about my marital status on an empty stomach.
I stopped in front of a small shop selling the usual selection of packaged biscuits, drink sachets and petrol in plastic water bottles. The family were sitting on the front porch of the attached house: man, woman, child, and a very, very old grandma. They invited me to sit with them, asked where I was from, where I was going. The neighbours walking along the road saw me sitting there, and dropped by for a rest and a stickybeak.
One of the old women told me that the lake I’d seen was called Danau Asmara, and was a good place to bathe. She said that there was a path down the side of the crater near the treehouse. I was immediately sold: I needed a wash like nobody’s business, and if the old women said it was safe, then that was good enough for me. I’m careful about being minimally clothed in random places in Indonesia, because you don’t always know what you’re blundering into – it could be anything from crocodiles to spirits to simply finding yourself in a place where only men go to hang out. But if this was a place where the old women went to wash too, then that was good enough for me.
My attempts to buy coffee ended in an invitation to drink sweet coffee with the family, and they wouldn’t let me pay. Instead, they insisted that after I went back up to the lake to swim, I should come back for lunch.
And so, I headed back up to the lake. There were young men up there now, enthusiastically constructing a small building next to the treehouse. I imagine it was destined to be a tourist attraction; Indonesians absolutely love piling into vehicles and driving long distances to scenic spots for the purpose of taking selfies; domestic tourism is a thriving if low-markup little industry.
I climbed up into the treehouse and had a look. It was pretty cool.
No safety rails and no liability around here. You always want to check how the white ants are going before you put your weight on the wood, but this was nice and new. No worries here.
The path down to the crater lake ended in steep steps, so I left my bike and my gear at the top, with the young men who were doing the building the work. That gave me a brief surge of separation anxiety, but the odds were good: they were locals, and there were a bunch of them all there together. Unless everyone in the local area was on board with robbing guests (which I knew for sure they weren’t) then no single person was going to mess with my gear in front of the others.
So I took my soap and my towel and descended into the crater. Down by the lake’s edge, I felt like the jungle – looming steeply on all sides – had put its arms around me. The edge of the lake was muddy, but there was a bamboo jetty and a little wooden dugout canoe.
I stripped off my sweaty layers of clothing, washed them, hung on the bamboo railings, and went for a swim. Near the edges of the lake the water was warm, almost hot from the sun; but further out, cold layers lay undisturbed in the clear water, waiting to grab at your ankles and make you gasp.
* * *
Washed and civilised, I returned to the village to take up that lunch invitation. Pak and I ate together in the house: a feast of rice, vegetables – green papaya and bitter melon – and omelette. The cooking was done by his wife, and she served us attentively, but didn’t eat with us. This was a slightly strange sensation: as an honoured guest, I ate with the man of the house, and the women and children would eat later; and yet, I am a woman. I wanted to share a meal with this lovely generous lady who’d just cooked this beautiful food for us. I suspected that, due to my status as a foreign visitor, I’d been temporarily elevated to the status of honorary man.
To be fair, however, one of the old women passing by that morning had asked – in genuine confusion – whether I was a man or a woman.
* * *
That afternoon I ended up back in Larantuka, because you sort of have to go that way to get back to the main body of the island. As I may have mentioned, Larantuka is a mildly dodgy port town, but it was daylight this time: I was tired and thought I might have a chance of tracking down a cheap homestay.
So I cruised the streets looking for signs, and found a place. It was certainly cheap. There was a little room with a bed and a plastic chair with melted patches from dropped cigarettes. The ceiling fan hung by a thread and made a terrible screeching noise. That was fine, I’m not picky. And then there was the bathroom, just your usual squat toilet with a bucket for water. I thought the tiles were just old and stained.
I brought my topbag inside and went to use the bathroom. THE TILES WERE NOT OLD AND STAINED. It was a brown layer of slime all over everything. This bathroom had not been cleaned in decades.
I went and ran my finger over the sheets: gritty.
Just… nope. I’m not super fussy, but this place was a biohazard. I picked up my top bag and headed out again.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told the old man, ‘I can’t stay here.’
He asked why not. I told him: ‘Kotor, Pak, terlalu kotor.’ It’s just too dirty.
He nodded in sad understanding. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know it’s dirty.’
At this point I was lost for words. Labour is not expensive in Indonesia; why not pay someone 50 cents to scrub the bathroom for ten minutes once a year? Anyway, I strapped my bag back on the bike in the blazing afternoon sun and went out to try again.
I found one hotel I couldn’t afford, and then they pointed me to another that I could. I was a bit over things by this stage, so I put on my spotlights (safety first) and rode the wrong way down a busy one way street to get there. This was, of course, pretty normal behaviour and caused no problems at all.
There, I took a room for about US $7. The shared bathroom had been scrubbed this year. The sheets were actually kind of clean. There was a karaoke competition pumping out Mariah Carey hits from the 90s across the road at a volume that made the glass louvres shake. The room looked like a suitable place for the rock-bottom part of a Bukowski bender, or maybe a quiet heroin overdose. For some reason, despite the lovely day I’d had, my spirits were suddenly low.
I washed and went out to find food to eat. It was getting dark and I was near the port. I was catcalled incessantly by men on the street and in the passing traffic.
Oh, fuck off, I thought. That’s enough for today.
I ate, and went to bed.