From Labuan Bajo I took a small bus to Ruteng up in the hills which is the administrative capital of a region called Manggarai. The driver managed to find a few other passengers but it appeared that transport was more ubiquitous than were the people that acually wanted to travel. In some cases prospected passengers clearly needed some persuasion to get in the vehicle and one woman was practically abducted. But when we finally were under way I found myself with ample leg room and listening to my favourite Indo pop, even though the bass was a bit too loud for my liking and the thudding sound almost popped the windows out of the bus.
The van dropped me off at a hotel at a crossroads where I rented a cheap room. At an altitude of 1200 m Ruteng enjoys a mild climate and I decided to stay for a while.
The town is home to a large school of tourism and when school was out I was often approached by students who wanted to practice their English with me. One of themas named Andrew and he told me the following:
To marry a girl the forthcoming bridegroom has to provide 5 buffaloes and an additional amount of money to pay for the wedding. This constitutes a considerable sum of money and it is for this reason that someone who has three daughters is considered to be a rich man.
So if I pay 5 buffaloes I can marry a local girl here? I asked.
Andrew looked at me.
Maybe 6 buffaloes, he said uncertain.
He told me that his mother tongue was Manggarai but that he and most of his generation spoke Bahasa Indonesia as a second language. But older people like his grandmother didn’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. His grandmother was alone now since his grandfather died.
Sorry, I said.
Andrew looked puzzled.
Then he told me that when his grandfather died he went to his grandmother. She didn’t want to be alone, he said.
So you stayed with here for a while, I said.
No, he said, I go back the next day.
You went back the next day, I said.
Yes, I go back the next day, he said.
The population of Flores is mainly Roman Catholic but when I inquired after the practice of growing rice, Andrew told me about religious ceremonies that were hardly in line with the liturgical principles of the Church of Rome. Before the harvest the people in his village perform a ceremony that involves the sacrifice of a chicken and pouring its blood over an altar. Here he described a large circular stone that stood in the middle of the rice fields. This was followed by the offering of an egg and a cigarette.
A cigarette? I asked.
Yes, but Indonesian cigarette, made from big leave, not Marlboro cigarette.
His father was now working on a palm oil plantation in Borneo where he earned 600,000 Rp a day. He sent money home but the family survived largely on the farming of vegetables and coffee. Before his father had left for Borneo, he had worked in the rice fields around the village where he only made 30,000 Rp. Andrew lived in a boarding house not far from the school. He ate rice every day.
For dinner? I asked.
Yes, he said, and for lunch.
And for breakfast? I said.
Rice, he said. But we cook the rice the day before.
Sometimes I felt like a celebrity as that one time when I met three girls with bibles under their arms and on their Sunday best who seemed very excited. They were giggling and I got a limp handshake from one of them. Where are you from? More giggling and before I could answer them they had suddenly abandonned me.
I was first introduced at the school by some of the students I had met the day before and was paraded by my hosts in front of different classrooms answering questions of the students. The format became a bit boring as the questions were much the same. In the last class that I visited I took the opportunity to lecture a bit on Geography after a question was asked about my country. I used the whiteboard to draw a map of Europe and explained the different countries, the climate, the economy and other interesting facts. A few days later I asked to be introduced to a teacher to see if I could partake in the regular English classes.
Before the class started I met Christian, who was an English teacher and he gave me a textbook and without further ado put me in front of the classroom. It was great and I enjoyed explaining sentences, their meaning and a bit of grammar. After that we did the usual photo session. Then I taught another class and these students too seemed to be very pleased with my performance.
After school was out Christian invited me for lunch at his family’s house. When the food was served Christian stood up to close the front door. He explained this was the custom in Manggarai. He also told me that during meals there is traditionally no conversation and people eat in silence. It is believed that people are at risk of biting their tongues off when they eat and speak at the same time. After she had put the food on the tabel his mother left. She likes to be excused, Christian said, she only speaks Manggarai. After the meal I took leave and said my thanks to the mother and an old woman with betel nut stained teeth who were both sitting in the kitchen. They were all smiles and then I said goodbye.
At the hotel I was often sitting on the veranda close to the kitchen, sipping coffee and reading a book. From that position I could easily observe the maids at their kitchen chores, chopping vegetables, preparing food and roasting coffee beans. A cockerel with beautiful feathers was tied to a block of wood in the small garden and I had helped it the day before when it had tied itself into a knot. Now one of the maids kept it under her feet and unceremoniously cut its throat with a kitchen knife spilling its blood in the gutter. Another chicken, tied to a papaya tree, looked on, nervously picking around while her cousin was swiftly plucked.
Sometimes I bought a durian and shared it with the women who clearly considered it a rare and much appreciated delicacy. In turn I was often served delicious treats from the kitchen.
Fermented cassava and guavas from the tree in the garden.
After I had eaten a whole plate of the cassava I became curious and wanted to know more about it. The cheesy chunks were surprisingly tasty and reminiscent of sweet potatoes without being quite so sweet. Wikipedia had a warning though: Symptoms of acute cyanide intoxication appear four or more hours after ingesting raw or poorly processed cassava: vertigo, vomiting, and collapse. In some cases, death may result within one or two hours. It can be treated easily with an injection of thiosulfate.
I googled where I could obtain thiosulfate but found that most suppliers wouldn’t ship their products to Indonesia. When after a whole day I still hadn’t collapsed I thought I was going to be okay, though at some point I thought I suffered a little from vertigo but it was probably just the strong coffee that I was drinking in large quantities.
In Ruteng I had bought a flight back from Labuan Bajo to Bali and from there to Kuala Lumpur. It was only the night before that I realised that I had only a two-hour layover for my connecting flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur and that I had failed to foresee that I would have to go through customs while changing from a domestic flight to an international flight. On top of that domestic flights were often delayed and I was afraid that the connection would be really tight. In Labuan Bajo I arrived early at Komodo Airport and asked if I could take my small backpack as hand luggage so that I wouldn’t have to wait to collect it at the conveyor belt on Bali. To my relief this was permitted even though its weight was well over my allowance for carry on.
At the gate I tried to connect with the internet but it seemed they had run out of IP addresses. When I boarded the plane I noticed we were 15 minutes late. Only one and a half hour, I thought.
Flying over Komodo I looked down and from above the beautiful islands looked like a pirate map. Here be dragons I thought.
On Bali I ran to the International departure hall and to my utter relief it turned out that my flight to KL was happily delayed and all was fine.