My travels in Indonesia started typically in Bali. I didn’t really have an itinerary to stick to and it wasn’t until I made it to Labuan Bajo after seeing Komodo Dragons that I decided to take a road trip in Flores to explore the island a little further.
The journey from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa took about 10 hours. The little discomfort of travelling on a small overcrowded public bus was compensated by spectacular scenery of endless hills and terraced valleys. Bajawa, a charming little town in the middle of the Florenese highlands is the capital of Ngada Regency.
In the Happy Happy Hotel, a lovely receptionist recommended her uncle for a local guide. Wilhelmus Doi, or William as he preferred to be called, was in his mid-forties and spoke excellent English. We arranged to visit a traditional village of Belaraghi the next day.
In the morning William picked me up on his motorbike. It was possible to drive almost the entire distance but I chose the option of hiking in the rainforest instead. It was warm and humid as the rainforest should be and I was sweating buckets. William was very good at spotting the wildlife and pointing out various plants. As I was the first tourist to hike the trek that year, William had arranged for two guys from the village to meet us half way through and help us clear away overgrown bushes. I have to say I got cold feet when I first saw Fensi and No armed with machetes, throwing spears and a riffle. William made a deal with the two that if they managed to shoot a bird, he would give them 100 000 rupiah and if they caught a porcupine, he would buy them two beers each. I felt like I was on one of those travel documentaries when a westerner goes hunting with an indigenous tribe. We didn’t get any birds but there was a poor porcupine in Fensi’s trap.
We arrived in Belaraghi at about 5 p.m. It’s hard to describe the beauty and charm of the place. The village laid on a forest glade with traditional thatched houses on each side. The youngsters were playing tag, while adults with smaller children were sitting on the porch outside one of the huts. It felt very peaceful. In my previous travels, it was always children, innately curious that would greet the visitor first. In Belaraghi, it was the adults that welcomed me with a smile while the children watched warily. Only when I started showing them videos I made when hiking they dared to come closer, then laughed every time the video shown Fensi or No.
One of the women gave me a little parcel rolled in a small bit of a leaf and pointed at her stained bright red lips and teeth. It’s Betel nut – William explained. Chewing betel nut had long been an important cultural practice not only in Indonesia but all across the Asia Pacific region. It is a stimulant that in small doses gives effects similar to caffeine or nicotine. In high doses it can be compared to cocaine. I tried chewing it but after biting a little, the taste was so intensely bitter that I was forced to spit it out. Sometime later I learnt that there are serious health risks associated with chewing betel nut, oral cancer being one of them.
It began to get dark and we went inside one of the huts. It belonged to an elderly couple Mama Rosa and Papa Edu. In the back room by the fireplace sat Mama Rosa’s brother in law, Anton. He was holding a chicken, unaware of its fate. Although Ngada tribe is officially Christian, they still practice animal sacrifice. Papa Edu began to chant. William explained he was honouring the ancestors. After the ceremony was over, Anton plucked the bird and handed it to Mama Rosa, who then added it to the broth she was making.
The day was not over yet. After the dinner we were invited to another house to try the unfortunate porcupine. The hut was full of people; men, women and children all sat in the circle on the floor chatting and laughing. I remember talking to a teenage boy who enlighten me that my countryman Robert Lewandowski just scored 4 stunning goals against Real Madrid. Through the night I was repeatedly offered locally produced alcohol Arak, which I politely declined. I have read somewhere that Arak can sometimes contain methanol which is highly toxic and can cause blindness, coma or in worse case death. That night I slept in Papa’s Edu house. It was cold but the bamboo floor very comfortable. I had decided I will hire William for another few days to take join me on my road trip in Flores and take me over to Maumere on the eastern end of the island.
If you are planning a trip to Indonesia and want to learn more about the country? check out our recommendations on books, films and documentaries about Indonesia.