The Jungle is Beautiful and Disgusting

The jungle was truly alive. Crickets, frogs, birds, lizards, all breathing in rhythm in the dark jungle at night. Each one inch square patch of jungle was literally teeming with sounds as soon as the sun went down.

When we’d arrived at the farmstay up on Mount Batukaru, Bali earlier that day, I knew we’d found the right place. I felt instantly happy here. This place really had some magic. You could feel it. It was one of those places where the peace invaded you, like a hum that took over your mind and restored it to its original state.

I stepped into the bathroom in our little hut and turned on the tap. A centipede a foot long shot out of the pipe and into the waiting bowl of water. There were also monster wasps making their home in the eaves of our cabin and slugs living in the toilet bowl.

Just like life, the jungle was disgusting as well as beautiful. I was entranced by the jungle and repulsed, all at the same time. It was an interesting feeling, like standing on an international date line where beauty and ugliness coexisted in the same moment. It was as though the universe was giving form in this place to the thought that God favours neither beauty nor ugliness, because both are only complete with the other.

Watching my Clothes Fall Apart

Labun Bajo on Flores, Indonesia was where I first noticed my clothes were moldering away. It was baking hot but dots of black mold were working their way across my shirts. The air was so humid that no laundry really dried unless it was in direct sunlight. And give your clothes a day or two stuffed in your backpack and bingo, mold.

My clothes fell apart quickly when I’d brought only three shirts to wear, and one of them was for 10°C weather that I had yet to encounter. I’d gone overboard on balls of wool and pieces of felt but skimped a little on the wardrobe. I vaguely wondered if wearing polyester might be the answer but being wrapped in plastic might not be the best approach in 30°C weather.

I contemplated borrowing my daughter’s clothing and attiring myself in tween wear. T-shirts with hamburgers on them, skorts that come up to your bum, jean shorts with lace fringe. It was either tweenybopper on the loose or crumbling traveller. I wasn’t sure what was worse.

Next time I came to Asia I vowed I would go Victorian and bring perfume. Especially if I brought children, who waste no time telling you that you smell. In crowded restaurants of course.

“You stink,” Nerys said at fairly regular intervals. “You smell like beeswax.” “Is beeswax so bad?” I asked her. “Real beeswax isn’t bad but it’s bad on you,” she replied, said as only someone under legal drinking age could.

I’d also made the mistake of joining the modesty patrol and bringing only shirts with sleeves. While other travellers romped through the heat in tank tops, my one t-shirt with short sleeves wasn’t holding up so well from perpetual wearing. “Is that shirt wet?” Paul asked me. “No, that’s a stain,” I replied. To be honest, a large part of me simply didn’t care what I looked like. “Is this what getting old is?” I wondered briefly. But only very briefly.

What I Heard at Night in Indonesia

Each place in Indonesia had their own particular brand of night noises. In Bali it was chickens and roosters that started at 5 am, as well as gongs and chanting at 6 am if you considered yourself lucky to be close to a temple. At Lena’s House in eastern Flores it was pigs being butchered under our bungalow, as well as the sound of crunching dry leaves as the same pigs raced away from whoever was relentlessly pursuing them. I don’t know who needed bacon at 3 am but somebody did. When you woke up, the peculiar thing was that there was still the same number of pigs as the day before.

In Moni, it was geckos. By day these geckos were the cute little things tourists liked to point at. By night they turned into beasts that never slept, making burping noises through a loudspeaker and then banging on doors with steel clubs at odd hours. I was glad I’d locked the door in case 50 geckos pushed the door down and burst into our room. I tried not to talk to the girls about what happened to the geckos at midnight but it was beginning to remind me of Twilight, take 6.

In Bajawa, the only noise loud enough to register on the Richter scale was the mosque that went on for an hour around 4 am. I wondered at a religion that woke people up in the middle of the night. Wouldn’t these people really rather stay in bed? C’mon folks, let’s be honest here.

Labunbajo combined mosque loudspeakers with an Indonesian rock band every night. You got minaret meets Bryan Adams. The saving grace was when the power went out at midnight every night and extinguished the rock band.

No matter what went on in the night though, we still woke up at 6 am. Which was a good thing, as you got 90 minutes of normal temperatures then before the heat hit. Did we make the most of getting up at 6 am? No, we stayed in our rooms like the clever people we were, making sure the sun was almost at the height of its powers before we hit the streets. You try getting kids out the door before 7 am every day unless there’s a school principal involved. No, I was not that mother after all.

Going Native and Other Faux-Pas

Malange Hot Springs

Malange Hot Springs, Bajawa

We walked down the steps to the natural hot spring near the traditional villages on the edge of Bajawa. We passed a sign that said “You pay for Kelimutu lakes, Rinca and Komodo island. So why not Bajawa hot springs? Only 10,000 rupiah ($1) per people!” So someone could speak English around here.

There was a small bamboo change room but Nerys refused to go in it after she saw the world’s biggest living spider in a corner. After she was revived from the trauma this caused, we were ready to go swimming. We were the first tourists to arrive around lunch time, then another couple came. “Do we just put on our bathing suit and go in?”, a German girl asked me. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m going to wear a sarong to swim.” I didn’t want to clamber into the river in a bikini when women in Flores do not go swimming except in their clothes, if at all. I wanted to be respectful of their culture. I got in with my sarong and then noticed the German girl decided to go in with her swimsuit.

Malange Hot Springs

Finally a chance to get clean.

With my sarong floating about me like some kind of giant lily pad, Paul, Sabine and Nerys teased me mercilessly. Then a few other tourists arrived and they all got in with their bikinis. Perhaps they thought that I had crossed the line and gone native, a rare disease that does occasionally strike a few Westerners every year.

The hot spring turned out to be the best natural hot springs I’d ever seen. Two currents, one hot and one cold, met in the middle of a fairly fast river, and it was lovely to swim in the warm river and follow the current.

After the swim we sat on a bamboo mat and the man who I presumed was the owner of the little sign about payment popped out of his bamboo house to cook a simple but delicious lunch of rice and vegetables. There was a menu by the mat, and I saw that he offered coconuts. “Boleh kami minta kalapa? (May we have a coconut?)” I asked him. “Well,” he replied, “It rained this morning and if I climb the coconut tree, my wife will have to kill a pig and a chicken for my funeral, which would make my child unhappy and that wouldn’t be a good thing.” This was definitely the guy who wrote the sign.

I showed my old photos of a village to him and asked if he knew which one it was. He knew immediately. “Those are Nio village. And that’s my aunt,” he said, pointing to a woman called Dominca in one photo. “And right there is where my father lived. Nio was my father’s village.” Our driver came over to have a look at the photos. “Can we go there this afternoon?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said, “it’s close.”

“Not another village!” the kids complained.

“We’ll never be back here again,” I said, “so try to enjoy it.”

We set off down a dirt road about 10 or 15 minutes from the hot springs. The road ended and there was Nio. The driver drove right into the middle of the village and parked at the far end. It seemed odd that he’d driven his shiny black car straight into the village grounds, rather than off to the side.

Peering at photos

Peering at photos

We got out of the car and I walked towards a house where a couple of men stood on the porch. They watched me walk towards them. I rummaged around in my bag for the photos and handed them to one of the men. I didn’t use a lot of words and figured the photos would do the talking. He looked at them, his eyes getting wider and then he started talking quickly to the man beside him. He knew immediately they were old photos of his village. I told him I was here before, in the year of the earthquake because I didn’t know how to say 1992 in Indonesian. He knew a little bit of English, but not much.

Soon everyone in the village, from kids to the old people, were crowded around the photos, pointing, talking. I don’t know what they said, but they were all excited.

The man who I’d first spoken to looked at one of the photos – of a white man sitting beside two Indonesians – and said “Mister John.” It was a British couple, John and his wife Tracy who had taken me and a German guy to Nio, where we’d stayed the night. John spoke excellent Indonesian and had spent a year already in Indonesia when I met him all those years ago. He was adored for his respect for Indonesians and for his fluency with the language.

“Ah Wolfgang,” the man said as soon as he saw the photo of the German. “He cut his hand,” pointing to the fleshy part between thumb and forefinger. I remembered now. “Machete?” I said. He nodded.

Back then there’d been no road. You had to hike in on dirt paths and walk between villages. We’d walked out down to the sea near Aimere with a crowd of the younger men from the village, where we’d met a truck to take us back. This had taken all day. There were really no private cars around Flores then and much less scooters about than now. Dump trucks were how you got about on roads that weren’t covered by little bemo buses. (Now you get there in less than an hour by car from Bajawa but you pay a lot for that.)  I remembered Wolfgang had arrived in jeans and left in an Ikat sarong. Another one gone native.

“Do you know what happened to John?” I asked. “America,” he thought. Maybe, maybe not. “Did he ever come back?” “No,” he said, “Tidak kembali.” He never came back.

“We have a school now,” he told me, “just over there. Australians helped build it.” I asked him, “How long ago was it built?” “It’s already been 3 years,” he said. “That’s better,” I said. Better to have a school now, because this village looked quite a bit poorer than Luba or Bela, and I wondered how many guides took people to this village. The kids weren’t wearing any shoes and quite a few had runny noses.

Then Dominca, a woman from one of the photos came up. She was probably in her late 50s. Then another, Marta. I’d taken a nice close-up of her in 1992, holding what I guessed was her first son. She was still holding a baby today, in the exact same pose as her photo. She told me she was 43, so she’d been 19 in the photo. She said she’d had two sons and that one had left the village for Surabaya. She’d been pretty then, and she was still attractive. We looked at each other. But she knew no English and my Bahasa Indonesian was not good enough for more than a few sentences. What could we say to each other about the 20 odd years that had passed through us? I wished then that I still had Mister John with me. Instead, I said, “You want the photo?” and handed it to her.

I tried to ask the man about what it was like here in those days. “Did you have money here then?” He shook his head, but I don’t know if he understood me. Those days were slipping away fast. Now only people in their fifties would remember the days before the villages were discovered by Westerners.

The monkey whisperer

The monkey whisperer

Then the conversation petered out and I went to see what the kids and Paul were doing. They were around the corner, watching a kid play with his tied up pet monkey. This kid was like the monkey whisperer – he was about 4 years old. No one else could come close to it or it would start flinging its arms around.

Then it seemed time to leave. There was more to say but how to say it was the issue. I thanked the older man and shook his hand. Then as suddenly as we’d arrived, we left in our big black car, which seemed so incongruous to the dark earth and thatch houses.

Stumbling About in the Past

The next morning we ate banana pancakes for breakfast at the homestay while the kids smothered theirs in overly sweet chocolate syrup. We made a plan to hire a driver and visit some traditional villages and a hot springs. I had a few photos of people from villages I’d been to in 1992 and showed them to Ryan, one of the guys working at the homestay.

“That looks like Naga village,” he said.

The driver arrived then, a polite looking guy without any tattoos, shaved head parts or dyed hair. His English was minimal but we figured we’d make do at the villages with our Indonesian dictionary and my broken Indonesian.

Luba in the mist

Luba in the mist

We stopped at two villages in the morning: Bela first, then Luba and walked around. The villages looked exactly like the villages I’d seen all that time ago. They were kind of otherworldly – like a village you’d see in a dream. Thatch and bamboo were used in many ways – whole, split and woven – to make houses with peaked roofs, about 30 houses around a rectangle-shaped central area. There was no grass, just hard packed earth.

Had we ever lived like that, say in Europe 600 years ago? It was like stepping back in time, yet not fully, for people in the village had electricity now and there may have been a few cell phones lurking about.

They had their animist thatch structures in the middle of the village, the ngadhu and bhaga. The ngadhu represented the male ancestors of a clan, and also showed the number of generations of the clan. The bhaga represented the female ancestors, as well as the sanctuary of the home and female body. And right beside them were graves with the cross of Christianity. The Portuguese brought Christianity here over 300 years ago but animism was still woven through it, like the ongoing practice of animal sacrifices and reading people’s fortunes in chicken livers.

Both villages were quiet, with only older women and men and children under four, and most were on their porches out of the sun or in the houses. The villages seemed to be quite organized for visitors – a donation box, a book to write down where you were from, and a slow trickle of tourists.

Sabina weaving Ikat

Sabina weaving Ikat

At Luba I stepped onto a porch and sat down beside one old woman weaving Ikat who told me her name was Sabina. I told her my daughter’s name was Sabine and we chatted. Every so often I’d look up a word in my dictionary and ask her another question. She told me it took her two weeks to make an Ikat. Then a village mom and her little girl joined us. I told them my name was Anne but my name seemed to confuse them. They repeated it like the letter “n”.

The key seemed to be to not rush the conversation. The silences between the talking was okay. We could just sit there together, worlds apart, people living in different decades or even different centuries brought together by the madness of modernity. Yet united by the truth that each of us shares the same human emotions; no matter if we indulge them or not, they are there and shared by us all.

Then a French guy and his Chinese girlfriend popped their heads under the low roof. They were surprised to see me there. We did some more introductions – they told us their names were Baptiste and Nancy – and I left them to continue the conversation on the porch. They spoke no Indonesian but the Chinese girl had a sparkly manner about her and I could tell she would make herself comfortable anywhere.

I found Paul and the kids on the edge of the village. Aaron ran towards me and pulled me up a short hill towards a tiny old woman talking to the kids in a language that wasn’t Indonesian. (Some of the older people and younger children don’t speak Indonesian but their own native language.) She wanted to give him a papaya. He took it and she said an ardent blessing over him, making the sign of the cross and muttering many words over him. She then grasped my hand tightly and told me her name, “Anna”. I realized that was the Indonesian version of Anne. I told her my name was the same and she smiled enormously. She shook my hand and kept clutching it as we walked to the car together. I hope I gave her something in return.

I got in the car and Paul said “Thank goodness you dealt with that. She was coming towards us like the walking dead and there was no way I was going to take that papaya.” Give him spreadsheets, stock prices, plumbing, carpentry and cheap flights to book and Paul was brilliant. But please no old women muttering foreign languages with betel nut stained red mouths.

Turquoise Stones on a Black Beach

Literally, blue stone beach

Literally, blue stone beach

We decided it was time to keep heading west to Bajawa, about 5 ½ hours away. I had a vague uneasiness that we were leaving too early, but Paul was eager to push on. Moni was one of those places that at first glance offered only Kelimutu but you had to peel back the layers and see it for the treasures it did have. Lopez and Gemma had complained to us that many people come to Moni and only stay one night.

We arranged a ride with an easy-going friend of Lopez, another Rasta. Since there were five of us, it turned out again to be only a little more expensive to hire a car and driver rather than brave the bus.

Rasta man told us the road before Ende was only open from 10 am to 10:30 am, then closed again until noon for roadworks. But the ten minutes we took to wander around the market in Moni meant we arrived when the road was already closed, with a bamboo pole across it and a line of traffic behind it. We had ninety minutes to wait for the road to open again.

We passed the time eating nasi goreng at a roadside stand and laughing about silly things. Then it was time to head off again. The kids amused themselves in the car plastering beeswax onto their nails and shaping them into talons of various colours. They’d discovered the beauty of beeswax at the equator. Here, you never had to put it in your armpit to warm it up.

We bought sate sticks at a quick stop in Ende and then continued driving. The road was again like a snake, and Nerys had a lot of trouble with car sickness. We stopped several times along the way for her to recover, but she ended up throwing up just before our stop at Blue Stone Beach. Luckily she’d given us advance warning and we’d already got out of the car.

Running from the waves

Running from the waves

Blue Stone Beach was exactly that: a beach with turquoise blue stones. It was deserted save for a skinny guy crouching at the top of the path near piles of turquoise stones sorted by size. We assumed they were his, but who knew where they ended up.

Around 5 o’clock we arrived in Bajawa and thanked Mr. Rasta for the drive. The kids and Paul stayed on the street with our bags while I went around checking guest houses. The first hotel I went to was clearly the poshest place in town. It was large, clean, overpriced and deserted. We looked at the rooms and I asked the girl at the desk if she would lower the price. “No,” she said. Why make money when you can sit empty?

Black sand

Black sand

I checked out another that was an okay price, but the people seemed not too friendly. The third place was a homestay off the main street. As soon as I walked in I was greeted with a welcome smile.

“I found a place,” I told Paul and the kids.

“Is it the place where they talked to you the most so you liked it for that?” Paul asked. He knew me well.

Thinking about Villages

Most people in Flores are very rooted to their village and to the land where their house stands. With your parents buried at your doorstep, how could you not be? Every time you leave your front door, there is Grandma and Granddad.

And if you sell your house and move, then what do you do about your parents’ grave outside your door? Do you dig it up and move it?? No, you live there forever or if you move, you don’t sell your house. Maybe your son will move in or another relative. How could Didi move to another village? She had 17 relatives to dig up if ever she did.

Boys in the hood

Outnumbered by boys

Didi’s new house stood exactly where her old house had been. It could have been centuries of her family living exactly on that spot. We feel fondness too for our house, city and country, but this is something else entirely, like a tree, rooted so firmly and never to be moved. Her plot of land had sustained her for her entire life – with vegetables, fruit, chicken and rice – and to leave it would be like cutting off a part of yourself.

Lopez too. He told us he couldn’t leave his village for too long, that he loved it. (I wondered how that would work out for his British girlfriend Gemma.) It was as if the village greatly eclipsed the concept of a country – managed in far away Java by a people ethnically different from the people of Flores.

Life here was an intricate web of family relations – cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles, all coming and going and everyone remembering how distant cousins were related. The communal life of the village greatly nourished people’s spirits.

Didi’s life was so very different from mine. She had the perpetual security of this communal life. She may never have left the area around Moni. She may never have been in a car. I don’t know if she’d ever seen the ocean. Whereas I have all the independence I could ever want, but in the West your security has to be earned and it is mainly in the form of your bankbook and what you yourself can create.

For us, communal life only happens when you go camping with friends or at a retreat. Yet when you become a mother, you realize that the mundane tasks of keeping house and motherhood were meant to be done with other women, not alone in your isolated fortress where they become lonely tasks, instead of lighthearted ones.

It takes the right structure and intentions, and then we can restore community to our lives amidst the independence. But many of us have never known any real community, so how can we miss or create what we don’t know we never had?

The Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh has said that community is the most important goal we can work towards. It’s interesting too how some places you travel to, if you meet nobody and just see the “sights”, you feel you are just passing through and a sense of emptiness pervades you, if you listen closely. At these moments, there is no sense of belonging, either through connections or through the land, so you feel like a number or a sheep being herded, and it’s not a good feeling. In contrast, the places where connections and community flourished nourish you deeply. For me on this trip so far those places have been Lena’s House with its magic communal table, Gecko’s Homestay with Lopez & Gemma inviting you into their life, and Didi and her village.

The right structures need to be planned into how we build our streets and houses – like the concept of a central gathering space, either a courtyard or inviting green space. We need to figure out how to create community from our structures and then it can flow out of who we are. It can’t be forced. You see it when you travel. At one hotel no one talked to each other because the tables were simply too far apart. It looked nice – little round tables with thatch roofs overhead, but nobody talked to another soul. Is that what we really want?

I remember my neighbour telling me that in her counseling group they said the more money you had as a child the more isolated you were. At Lena’s House, the owner asked me if my kids were okay sharing a room. Maybe he’d heard that Western kids all sleep in separate rooms from each other.

Probably the security of communal living and the total freedom of independence can never fully be combined without sacrificing something from one of them. But the West needs more community, even if we don’t fully know it, especially for mothers with young kids.

From Animal to Man

I was still thinking about Lizard Man, that I hadn’t really stepped up to offer him something. Then an email arrived in my inbox from the former Rabbi of the synagogue in West Van with this quote in it.

You must judge all people favorably. Even in the case of a complete rasha, you must search until you find some modicum of good in him, the part that is not evil! By finding this small drop of good and judging him favorably, you are genuinely able to lift him to the place where he has some merit and this enables him to return to his true, good self.

   – Rabbi Nachman (a Rabbi in the 1800s with thousands of followers today).

Interesting that he had an animal tattoo and a rasha is someone who succumbs to their animal self. I hadn’t done anything to help him return to his true, good self. Offering popcorn didn’t quite cut it. Next time I meet a Lizard, note to self to put myself out there to say something. Something as simple as “You are a good man” would be a great start.

There Must be a Better Part of Town

Rice and more rice

Rice and more rice

After we saw Kelimutu, we’d walked back to Geckos Homestay through the town, Moni. It was a town with one road that passed by a few places to stay, a few places to eat, a school, a couple of shops and a market, with a large part of this road covered in roadworks. That was about it.

We kept walking. “There must be a better part of town,” Paul said.

Then we burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of this statement. It was said so much through Western eyes. Here, there was no better part of town. This was Indonesia and this was what you got, broken pipes along the road side, holes in the sidewalk, garbage strewn around. But Moni was a pretty good place – thankfully not too busy, with neither heaps of scooters honking horns and hurting your ears, or too many broken sidewalks to navigate.

We backtracked to the center of town and surveyed the street. The Bintang Café was clearly the hot spot, with a patio on the second floor where you could look out over the street and beyond to the rice fields. We climbed the stairs and took a seat at one of the tables. Four or five other tourists were there too.

The waiter had a strange accent. It was like London Cockney. Bizarre. It also made his English harder to understand with strange unexpected inflections, not the flatter English of other Indonesians. Regardless of the accent, he was very fluent.

We got to talking and he told me he learnt his English from a British girl. I asked him about the traditional villages. “They’ve changed,” he said. “They’re not the same.” “In what way?” I asked. “Money,” he said. “Now they use money. It changes the mind.”

In Indonesia it was likely possible not so many years ago to find a village where money hadn’t entered, where the village survived through communal responsibility and trust. Can we even imagine what our minds were like before money? But somewhere that memory is buried within us.

Trying out the World’s Best Slingshot

Just before noon we walked back to Woloki. Sabine and Nerys muttered complaints about having to go back to that woman’s house. They dawdled up the hill, looking at a couple of cows tied up by the dirt path. Aaron found some enormous stick to endanger our eyeballs with.

We saw a woman coming towards us – it was Didi, come to meet us. “Cape?” (cha-pay) she asked, pointing to her legs. We figured it meant tired legs. If we’d been able to communicate better we could have said, “Tired, hell no. We’re from Vancouver and you should see the hills where we live.” Instead we shook our heads.

We walked into her village, saying hello to the few people who were lingering about.

Today was a smaller crowd, just Didi, Dina and the old woman from yesterday. We sat in the living room and had tea again, very sweet black tea that the kids devoured. Then the meal was ready. It wasn’t chicken after all. Chicken was expensive here – a whole one can be from 150,000 to 200,000 rupiah ($15 to $20). That was about what you’d pay in Canada for a cooked chicken.

The remains of the feast

The remains of the feast

Instead there was white rice, Chinese noodles, shrimp chips (the kids’ eyes lit up at those), cooked cabbage and green beans, chunks of grilled dried fish, fried eggs, chili sambal, and papaya. A feast, and way more variety of food than when I’d stayed before. Then it had been small dried fish that the poorest people ate, white rice, and sambal. Turns out those small fish that you eat whole are packed with all sorts of goodies, especially because you eat the whole fish. And for some reason dried is supposed to be better than fresh. But I digress.

After we finished eating, the kids started playing with a hunk of green beeswax, turning it into fake pointy nails. Aaron came into the dining room waving his green nails. Didi took one look at them and was horrified. I tried to explain what they were. “Bees… lebah… um… um,” my voice trailed off. Her eyes were wide with horror and it didn’t look like she felt comforted by any of my useless attempts to explain. Dina didn’t bat an eye at the nails – she’d told me earlier that she’d been to Surabaya to study, and probably had seen so much more of the world than Didi. Yet Didi had kept a natural sense of what I can only call awe that must wear away after piling up heaps of experiences like we do.

After lunch we went for a walk to the next village with Dina while Didi stayed behind. We set off walking on a steep narrow dirt path. It was hot and there was very little shade. Dina’s dog followed us, a well-behaved dog well-taken care of, unlike most of the dogs here.

We reached the next village and passed the school, a small building on a terraced slope. We climbed another set of stairs and suddenly there was everybody, a whole pack of kids along with three Indonesian girls in their twenties in red t-shirts with another woman who turned out to be Willie’s mother. The red t-shirt girls told us they were visitors. They wanted to practice their English so we talked for a bit. I asked them how they got to the village and was surprised when they replied “By car”. “By car?” I said. That didn’t make sense. There was no way a car could ever make it up the trail we came by. Even a scooter was questionable. One girl pointed towards the other direction from where we came. Then I understood that this was one of the villages that you saw from the paved road up Kelimutu. Driving in a car up the volcano you passed one or two houses every so often by the roadside. But these were actually just a glimpse of entire villages terraced into the slopes of Kelimutu.

This would truly be the ultimate way to get to the top of the volcano. The villages were the backbone of the town and walking up through them for hours on the dirt path to Kelimutu would be truly amazing. You’d uncover village after village until you arrived at the volcano at the top, and peel back the layer of life that was actually Moni.

The teenage girls bade us goodbye and we turned our attention to the heaps of boys and handful of girls standing around us. It was easy to talk to them. All you had to do was ask them their name (Siapa namamu?) Your name? Then when you’d done that round, you went around again asking them their age. “Anda berapa umur? If you can’t remember berapa you can just say “umur anda” – basically you old?

It was sweet to see the kids smile when you asked them a question. Some were shy but they all grinned immensely when you talked to them. But it was surprising to see how much smaller the kids were than Canadians of the same age. Sabine positively seemed like a giant next to the other 12 and 13 year olds, and she was the smallest in her class back home.

Masters of the slingshot take on a new initiate

Masters of the slingshot take on a new initiate

The boys all had impressive homemade slingshots and one had a bow. They were shooting rocks at an electrical post with fantastic aim. I asked if we could try. One of the 13 year old boys in a red shirt handed a slingshot to us. He had bright eyes and seemed happy to step up as the village spokesboy. I wondered if he would ever have the chance to fulfill his potential, in a country where so many of the men under thirty seemed to be seriously underemployed and spend a vast chunk of their time chain-smoking.

The kids watched Aaron shoot. He was pretty good with the slingshot. Then Nerys tried. She wasn’t as good but she told us that the slingshot was really excellent – it had so many elastic bands that you didn’t have to pull back so hard, but would fire away really far.

Dina came out of one of the houses then and asked if we’d like to stay for coffee. Everyone had a supply of coffee in the villages – they pound the beans themselves down to a powder, and then add hot water. There was always sludge at the bottom, but as long as you didn’t drink it, it was fine. And never any milk, but lots of sugar.

Tearing down the road to Woloki

Tearing down the road to Woloki

We said no, though, it was getting late. But more so because we were tired. Meeting so many new people and talking in a broken language for so long tends to fry your brain somewhat.

We walked back down to Didi’s village to say our goodbyes with some of the younger village boys running ahead with hysterical laughter.

Didi loaded us up with leftovers and a huge bag of baby potatoes. She told me the next time I come, I must stay at her house and bring my sister and her three kids too. “When will you be back?” she asked. I thought about the 24 hour trip to get to Bali, plus a flight to Maumere, and then the seven hour drive with Lizard Man. “Lima tahun,” (five years) I said. She replied, “I will be dead by then.” I shook my head, tried to tell her, no, you are strong, you will live long.

Then she called me sister, as she had in her letter to me long ago, and we hugged each other and we both cried. She rubbed her cheek against my cheek while we hugged, which reminded me of a version of the Eskimo kiss. For some reason I felt a bond with this woman. I didn’t know quite why.