Mountain High in Flores

The hardest thing about the hike to Wae Rebo was getting to the trailhead.

For seven punishing hours, we had rattled up, down and around hulking mountains over shattered roads. In many places, the skin of asphalt had sloughed off years ago, exposing a roadbed of rounded river rocks that shook the car violently. Our average speed was 25 kph, which included an hour of crawling forward at 5 kph, the car rocking like storm-tossed ship. Chunks of cement had torn loose from little bridges during the rainy season, forcing Stefan to negotiate nests of rebar. Rarely was the road much wider than our car; someone had to risk drop-offs or ditches for two vehicles to pass.

   

Unable to read, write or sleep, I spent seven hours watching an unedited, highly-authentic movie of life in rural Flores. Every home had plastic tarps spread out on their small front yards, on which dried rice, macadamia nuts, cloves or chilis. Inside simple breezeblock houses with  corrugated metal roofs, I spied women making ikat cloth on looms. Many homes had chickens pecking about and little raised wooden cages for black, pot-bellied pigs. Groups of women sat chatting on shared verandahs, combing or braiding each other’s hair. Tiny ‘kios’ shops, often protected with bars or grates, sold packets of instant noodles and single-use sachets of sauces and shampoo. Considering the state of the road, it was no surprise to pass dozens of tire and repair shops, always with at least four young men tinkering around with a dismantled motorcycle.

It was Sunday, so we passed hundreds of villagers in their Sabbath day best, walking down the road, clutching Bibles and laughing. Thanks to Portuguese priests, the people of Flores are mostly Catholic, especially in the interior. As elsewhere in Asia, the Muslims (often fishermen or traders) live predominantly on the coast. It seemed so odd to pass little churches up in the hills, or to see banners above doors wishing visitors “Happy Easter” in Bahasa Indonesia.

   

I was on my own; a good thing for many reasons. Wary of repeating our Papua New Guinea hiking experience, Nori had no intention of joining another jungle hike. I was confident that the boys could handle a 2-3 hour hike, and wanted to take them, but was worried about the high likelihood of rain. As it turned out, the walk wasn’t so steep and I was fortunate to experience no rain climbing or descending. But that drive. My God that drive.     

Though it hardly seemed possible, the road actually got worse as we neared Flores’ rocky southern coast. But the scenery of rice terraces spilling down to the sea was spectacular. Far to the east, I could see two steep cones.  

“You see the second volcano? That’s where my village is,” said Stefan, looking homesick. His eldest daughter was living there with her grandparents. He was of the Balewa tribe of Central Flores. “There are too many [a lot of] traditional villages around there, many megalithic tombs.”

   

Dazed and sore from the drive, I was overjoyed to step out of the van. I really wanted to start walking, but Stefan suggested we take an ojek (motorcycle taxi) ride up the first 2km. As he rightly pointed out, it would be good to reach the village before sunset. So with my hip muscles spasming, I squeezed the seat of the overburdened motorcycle as my teenage driver took me on a roller-coaster ride through the Flores jungle. A few minutes later, Stefan joined me at the start of the trail.  

The trail was steep, but also wide, well-worn and continuously maintained by the villagers, who march up and down it several times a month. So there were no branches to duck, no deadfall blocking the path and no litter. It’s probably the prettiest jungle trail I’ve ever walked. As we climbed, breaks in the vegetation offered glorious views of the sheer, deeply folded green walls surrounding us. Where the trail traversed an exposed, rocky face we could see all the way down the valley to the Savo Sea.

On our way up, we passed several villagers heading down. They always stopped, shook hands and introduced themselves: Francisco, Antonio and Lorenzo. All the Catholics had Western first names. “There is a market in the town below on Monday,” Stefan explained, “so a lot of them go down and stay the night on Sunday.” I noticed that they weren’t carrying anything with them except empty bags or bamboo shoulder carriers. “Yeah, they only go to buy things, not sell things. They get the money from tourists and coffee.”

  

The final kilometer of the walk was delightful; a gradual descent past cinnamon and coffee trees, the cherries ripening unevenly from green to red. I stopped to taste the fruit and then crunch the bean. Only after serious mastication did the faintest hint of coffee taste emerge, and I might have been imagining it.

Just before reaching the village, we stopped at a little hut where Stefan announced our arrival by banging a section of dried bamboo with a mallet. Moments later, we heard cheers. Wow, I thought, what a welcome!

A few minutes later, the seven tall, thatched homes came into view. The tallest and widest sat in the middle, with three smaller lodges on each side forming a V-shape. Inside the V was a grassy field where the evening volleyball match was being held. The screaming I’d heard wasn’t for me but for a hard-won point. There was no rush to don traditional clothes. The villagers didn’t stop the game to say hello. In fact, they completely ignored me. I took that as a good sign.

   

The lodges looked like giant grey teepees, with mats of overlapping thatch covering the long bamboo poles that slanted inward to form their distinctive cone shape. Inside, the circular floor was raised off the ground by dozens of wooden struts and the heavy beams above us suggested that a second and even third story could be added if needed.

Strictly speaking, Wae Rebo isn’t an authentic Manggarai village. It probably didn’t exist centuries ago; a few surviving huts were rebuilt and others were added in 2010. While the village is certainly remote, the villagers aren’t isolated or ignorant: they have electricity from a diesel generator for a few hours each night, most have cellphones and wear Western clothing and they send their kids down the trail to school once they reach six.  

But Wae Rebo isn’t a tacky, tourist-driven “show village” either. The families occupying the lodges chose to live there because they wanted an older, simpler way of life. They speak Manggarai, live with their extended families in a single lodge and maintain adat (rituals) that the pace of modern life is extinguishing across the archipelago. Tourists are welcomed because their fees and donations support the project. But the village doesn’t revolve around them. There was no schedule of activities. And the only person I spoke to was the headman, whose English was surprisingly good.   

     

For several hours, it looked like I might be the only guest at Wae Rebo that evening. Not even the villagers know how many people will show up each night. You can’t book a spot on Airbnb. That said, the lodges’ sleeping platforms are large; Stefan claimed that a hundred people can sleep there but I hoped not the test the theory. As a light evening rain began to fall (without a drop of water penetrating the lodges’ interior), a trio of Indonesians from Jakarta and their guide rushed inside. We shared a simple, but tasty, dinner while I listened intently to their conversation in Bahasa Indonesia with the village headman. I caught perhaps 30%.

As I knew I would, I had a terrible night of sleep. I’m just not built for sleeping on flat surfaces and mosquitoes terrorized me all night. One of the Indonesians woke up very early and made a ridiculous amount of noise. There was no way I could go back to sleep but Stefan snored on undisturbed. The wet hiking clothes I had hung up inside the lodge smelled like campfire and caramelized sweat and I just wanted to get back down the mountain.

   

The drive back to Labuan Bajo was as brutal and as beautiful as the initial journey. But I knew just what to do when I arrived: a brace of sunset Bintangs at the Paradise Bar and a delicious meal at Made in Italy.

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