I Find Didi Where She’s Always Been

Didi and Dina with the girls

Didi and Dina with the girls

In the afternoon we walked up to Woloki village to find Didi. Woloki turned out to be not far from Geckos Homestay. We walked up a hill, starting by the same path you’d take if you were to walk up Kelimutu through the villages. Now that would truly be the way to earn the view at the top of Kelimutu.

The first part of the path was paved, albeit with rather dilapidated concrete. After ten minutes, the concrete gave way to earth, which was easier on the feet. We walked for twenty minutes more and then we saw two Indonesian women coming towards us. Suddenly one was hugging me and jumping up and down. It was Didi. She looked almost exactly the same. We kept hugging and I felt very emotional to find her again, thinking about the passage of time running so fast, like a crazy current carrying us all along, and all the things that happen to you on the way.

In my broken Indonesian we talked and introduced everybody. She told us she lived with her cousin Dina who was the woman beside her, and then we carried on to her village. An old guy met us as we walked in and he got very excited and pumped my hand up and down over and over. We stopped at a group of men playing cards and Didi introduced us. The old man was still very excited and other villagers came over to see what was going on. Didi was grinning tremendously and the old guy looked like he was about to burst. I started feeling very overwhelmed. Paul muttered to me “Keep it together, Anne.” I couldn’t believe how excited they were and it made me feel very emotional.

We kept walking to her house and more women joined us. More introductions. Then we went inside. Chairs were pulled out and a group of people gathered in her small living room, some sitting, some standing. Didi served tea and biscuits, and then we attempted to talk more. She told me that she’d never married and neither did the cousin she lived with. Her two brothers had moved away and her ancient Mum had died. She told me that Ibu (mother) Cecilia was buried right outside the house with 16 other relatives in the large raised pink tile grave. She also asked after my sister Sally. I was amazed she remembered my sister’s name.

Aaron playing doorman at Didi's house

Aaron playing doorman at Didi’s house

Didi now lived in a concrete house with six rooms, including a traditional earth floor kitchen. The house was built five years ago in the same spot as her traditional bamboo and thatch house. There were still pigs, dogs and chickens running about, but the communal washing area in the village was gone. The old man showed me around the garden: papaya, cocoa, cashews, coffee, vegetables, and they also had bags of dried tobacco leaves to sell in the market. We went back inside and Didi asked “Makan?” (Eat)

We nodded and went through to her dining room. While we were talking her cousin Dina had whipped up a huge meal: rice, fried dried fish, vegetables, noodles and papaya. Papaya seemed to grow everywhere and always be available. Her cousin Willie arrived who spoke some English, so he helped translate as we sat at the table. Paul got out his phone with a Google translation app and somehow we managed to continue a conversation. There was something about using a phone to talk though that seemed to take away from human connection. It seemed better to stumble along without the phone, kind of like who cares if we don’t understand each other, at least we’re looking in each other’s eyes.

Didi had been 38 when I’d stayed with her, now she was 64. She was in great shape. Her teeth were white and straight, and she obviously had never developed a betel nut habit, unlike the old woman beside her whose broken teeth and gums were stained red. Betel nut is a mild stimulant, kind of like nicotine but with a ritual around it similar to giving guests tea. It also suppressed the appetite. Perhaps that might have been useful in the past in the villages, but it also had been linked to cancer.

A few crazy village boys

A few crazy village boys

Didi still dressed in the traditional way with an ikat sarong, one that you roll to your waist, but unroll if you’re cold so that you can put it around your shoulders. She told us she worked seven days a week, growing vegetables, drying food and in the rice field. They had a little bamboo storehouse for food, raised on stilts, full of dried corn.

We talked some more while Sabine, Nerys and Aaron went outside to look at baby chicks. Then it was photo time. Didi never smiled for the photos, like those black and white photographs of ancient relatives who thought photo-taking serious business. She invited us to come back the next day for lunch and we said we would.

I’m That Mother

Kelimutu at 6 am

Kelimutu at 6 am

At 4 am we woke up the kids to head up the volcano Kelimutu. Lopez got up at 3:30 to make us pisang goreng (fried banana) to take with us. We didn’t bother telling the kids our plans the night before, as we knew there would be complaints. But when you get up at 6 am every morning, 4 am isn’t so bad.

The driver to take us there was a friend of Lopez, and another Rasta dude.

“Why is there so much reggae here?” Nerys asked.

We drove in the dark to the parking lot near the top of Kelimutu listening to reggae. It used to be you walked up Kelimutu for free, which took four hours, but now the road is paved almost to the top and you stop at a toll on the way. You can still walk through the villages to the top though.

Aaron as a Backpack

Aaron as a Backpack

We paid our fee for two adults and then began walking in the dark on the trail to the top. Sunrise arrived quickly. The light spread out all over the volcano and it was stunning to watch the light come up and fill the sky. Two of the lakes were now turquoise, one with a splash of yellow sulphur at the end, much like when I came here before. The third lake was now a dark green. In the past the lakes have been white, red and black. All the tourists in the town had come out of the woodwork and everyone seemed to be at the lookout.

We ate our enormous bundle of pisang goring. Nerys said, “I can’t eat any more fried food.” Aaron added “Or you’re going to have a fried poo.”

As we left the lookout an American girl tapped me on the shoulder and said, “When I have kids I wanna be that mother who drags her kids up Kelimutu too.”

Sitting on Gravestones and Other Entertainments

Lopez and his card tricks

Lopez and his card tricks

Our new place, Geckos Homestay, was in a village on the edge of the town of Moni. It was run by Lopez, a 30 year old Indonesian Rasta with dyed blonde curly hair sticking out from his head. He had spent ten years on Bali and his English was excellent. He said he went a bit crazy partying on Bali and couldn’t always remember things anymore. He was full of energy, big grins and a kind host, whipping up food for us and climbing coconut trees for the kids.

His British girlfriend Gemma had spent a year on Flores helping people set up homestays. She told us she’d lived with Lopez for nine months in this very basic house, with two rooms beside it that they rent out.

They showed us the kitchen where they still cook in the traditional way over a three stone fire, a fire which you light between three big rocks and then you rest the pot on the three rocks. It’s very efficient and uses the least wood. The floor is hard black earth and they crouch on the floor to cut vegetables and cook, or sit on small wooden planks.  Gemma told us that some people have a modern kitchen just for show, as they still like to cook over fire. “It tastes better,” said Lopez.

One thing that has perplexed us is why there are these raised shiny tile slabs beside almost every house. They looked a bit like gravestones. Lopez told us they were actually graves and showed us his mother’s grave, a large pink slab outside his front door.

“We like to lie on them,” he said. “The tiles are cool to sit on.”

Lopez’s 13 year old sister and 17 year old brother lived with him also, as he was taking care of them. He said he had no education past high school but he’d told his mother before she died that he would see that they went to university.

Gemma told us that she was usually invited to sit with the men instead of the women. She said that quite a few Indonesian men sit around and do very little work while the women work hard all day.

I showed my photo of Didi to Lopez. He recognized her almost immediately. “Yes, she’s still alive. She goes to church every Sunday.”

Later I asked Gemma if Lopez goes to church. “No,” she said, “Lopez doesn’t like the priest. Whenever it’s time for a communion they make the families buy a new Bible and it’s expensive. But if they don’t buy it, there’s no communion.”

We decided to head the next morning to see sunrise over Kelimutu, the volcano with three lakes that change colour. We’d been wondering what to do with the overpriced admission fee, debating whether we could find the path which bypassed the ticket gate but added three hours to the walk up. At $15 a person, full price would be $75 for the five of us. Lopez told us the trick to avoid paying the exorbitant fees of 150,000 rupiah per person ($15) at the gate was simply to buy only a couple of tickets. They never check how many people are in the car. So we’d pay only $30 to see the lakes. Interesting how some things are solved so easily if you just be patient.

Lizard Man Strikes Again

We decided to leave our little slice of Indonesian paradise at Lena House and head to Moni. We debated taking the public bus. The bus to Maumere would pass by the side of the road in front of Lena’s anytime between 9 am and 10 am, but if it were full they wouldn’t be able to stop. And there were five of us, so it might be tricky with our luggage to get a seat. And you couldn’t buy tickets in advance. We’d need to change in the furnace of Maumere, half an hour away, and then five hours to Moni. It would be $40 total. Or, we could simply pay $30 more and hire a car and driver for $70 total that would pick us up right at our door.

Car and driver was the way to go. Minimal suffering. So we asked Didakus to book us a driver. “But,” Paul asked him. “Please not the same driver who brought us here.”

The next day, who should show up but Lizard Tattoo Man with the crooked eyes. Didakus told Paul he did ask the taxi company not to send him, but they sent him anyway.

So this was it, six hours ahead of us with Lizard Man. What was the universe saying to us? To hold no grudges against this guy but to get another chance to connect with him? He seemed filled with bitterness at Western people and what we represented. By the roll of the dice he was born here and seemed he had chosen to be bitter about it. Yet there is always someone richer than you and someone poorer, and all you can do is play the hand you were dealt with as well as you can. There are only two choices – either be bitter at what you don’t have or enjoy what you do have. Either way, things are still the same, but gratitude and happiness feel much better than the other choice.

We headed off in the car and I handed Lizard Man a bag of popcorn we’d bought in the market yesterday. It was slightly stale, because the bags are as thin as gauze here. Even the plastic bags in the West are better.

After half an hour we arrived in Maumere. Lizard Man told us he needed to stop to buy lunch food. We drove for ten more minutes, then he asked us to pay 200,000 rupiah upfront as he needed to stop for gas. We drove another twenty minutes and he told us he needed to stop for a cigarette. This was going to be a long drive.

After a bit, we stopped at Sikka village, a village on the coast with a 100 year old church built by the Portuguese. It was a beautiful wooden church. Then a villager invited us to watch a Ikat weaving demonstration. It’s $20 she told us. We felt like we had stepped into a world where tourists are lured by kind church ladies. We just couldn’t do it so we returned to the car.

On the next leg of the journey, Lizard Man started popping boiled candies. He made an incredible noise, kind of like an actual lizard. From her seat in the trunk Sabine asked, “What’s that noise?” “Um, the driver,” I told her.

We stopped for a few more cigarette breaks. We began to wonder about ever making it to Moni. Paul suggested to him perhaps it was time to smoke in the car. Finally we made it to the lunch stop at Paga beach. The restaurant was called Larissa and had a good write up in the Lonely Planet. But this area must be really short of places to write about if this place made it in. The food was good, the people friendly, and it was lovely to sit at a table on the beach and eat, but the restaurant was incredibly run down. Mud ran between the bathroom and the actual café, and the walls were old and dirty. The thinnest dogs and cats we’d ever seen slunk from table to table.

“Why are the dogs so skinny?” Nerys asked (again).

“Well, Nerys, would you rather feed Grandma or a dog?”

“Maybe I would give Grandma most of it but save one quarter for the dog.”

We got back in the car and continued the drive. The road was getting even more windy through the mountains. Paul noticed the driver nodding off and soon we were asking him to take a cigarette break.

Eventually we made it to our homestay, a place called Geckos that was run by Lopez, a Rastafarian local, and his girlfriend Gemma, who was British.

Lizard Man took the coffee they offered him and then got back in the car to drive back. We thanked him and I thought was there anything I could say to him about how to be less bitter. I thought about telling him he was a good man. It was certainly pointless to tell him off for trying to fleece tourists. That is the nature of the game. But he left before I said anything. And I realized we never asked his name. I didn’t want to make that mistake again. Asking someone’s name is at least the bare minimum.

Finally A Letter is Read

Boy turning feral

Boy turning feral

I got talking with the owner of Lena’s Place guest house, Didakus, and told him about the woman, Didi, that I stayed with in Moni. He translated her letter in Indonesian for me. At last I’d know what she’d written. She began by wishing good health for my parents and I. She then wrote that they were in good health but that a terrible earthquake happened four months after I left. This earthquake flattened her village, their vegetable patch and fruit trees, and left them with no place to stay but a bamboo lean-to with a tarp overhead. She said thank you for the photos I’d sent. She wrote she’d love to have another letter from me and wants to write me a letter, but can I send her some money for the stamp as they have nothing.

I felt so badly. I’d never replied. I was in my twenties and completely self-absorbed. I’d had no idea how to read her letter and had heard nothing about an earthquake. I’d kept it though, at least there was that.

Didakus told me about his story about the earthquake. He was 17 and at school in Ende at the time. The school was damaged and he and the other boys walked 100 km over three days back home to their village. He said it took 5 years for Flores to recover.

“If you find her, tell me,” he said.

Climbing Mount Egon and Earning Fried Bananas

Smelling the gases at Mt. Egon

Smelling the gases at Mt. Egon

After two days at Lena’s Place, we decided to climb the nearby volcano Mount Egon, about a five hour hike. We raced to leave the guest house by 7 am to avoid the burning heat. After a half an hour drive, we met Fred, our guide, along with a British girl Kate and a Canadian Marissa from Vancouver, and Fred’s friend, at the trailhead.

Fred told us he had climbed the volcano over 30 times. I’d left my hiking boots in Denpasar so had only my flip flops. Aaron had boots but refused to wear them, choosing flip flops instead too. After three hours of picking our way over the thin rocky trail, we were steps away from the top. Steam was hissing from a hole in the cauldera and the air was filled with a strong smell of sulphur.

“C’mon, hold hands,” said Fred, reaching for Aaron’s hand. Aaron refused.

“Aaron, hold Fred’s hand. It’s not safe,” I said, assuming there was a big drop into the cauldera.

“No,” said Fred, “It’s to celebrate being here.”

Of course. A much better idea.

After a snack of fried bananas (pisang goreng), we decided to walk down into the cauldera. The smell of sulphur was too revolting for Aaron and Sabine, so they stayed at the top with Kate and Marissa. The rest of us scrambled down into the cauldera and walked over to look down into an enormous hole where the volcano last blew up from, 30 years ago.

On the way down, Kate got a headache and stomach upset. I too had a headache, and later that day Sabine threw up. Fred told us he felt ill that afternoon too. Seemed like we had a mild case of hydrogen sulfur poisoning. But it had been very satisfying to climb to the top and earn our snack of fried bananas. When things arrive with effort and challenge, you feel like you earned your reward and it has more meaning.

Ignore the Garbage, Enjoy the Shade

Our bungalow: humans above, pigs below

Our bungalow: humans above, pigs below

The next morning the man came back with the boat to pick us up for breakfast at the café at what he called Lena 1. He told me his name was Fred and that he was a nephew of the owner. He had bright eyes and a happy demeanour. I told him I was on Flores once before, 24 years ago.

“That’s how old I am,” he told me. “It’s my birthday on Saturday.”

“How will you celebrate?” I asked him.

He paused for a moment, “Nothing. Just enjoy life.”

I liked his answer – there was none of the guilty feeling of us in the West when we do nothing on a special day.

At Lena 1 we climbed out of the boat and joined the other travellers at a communal outdoor table for breakfast. An Irish guy and a German girl, a family from Switzerland with two children 9 and 7, and an older French couple who lived on the island of Reunion. Everyone was talking and sharing information and you could tell traveller magic was alive here.

After breakfast Lisa from the taxi ride appeared. She told us that her guesthouse was literally no more than 100 meters from ours, not 2 km. So we had been right to insist on not paying the driver any more.

“Never trust a man with a lizard tattoo on his neck,” said Paul.

Baby pigs on the beach

Baby pigs on the beach

We spent the next four days here, swimming in the warm water, Aaron building sandcastles in the dark yellow sand, chasing the baby pigs, and eating around the table with the others. We moved from the cavernous house into two little bungalows next to the eating room and that was much better. Less mosquitoes, closer to food. What more could you ask for?

The girls were puzzled by the toilet that didn’t flush. You had to ladle big scoops of water down the toilet until it flushed by itself. It took them a couple of days to get the concept. We were one step closer to The Asian Toilet.

The beach had some garbage strewn across it here and there. It was not a white sand beach by any stretch. But perhaps beach perfection is overrated. Maybe even boring. Perhaps the trick is to take in with gratitude what there is exactly where you are. By midday shade would creep down the beach so Aaron and Nerys could play without being burnt, and the water was perfectly still in the morning. That was the perfection.

No need to bail yet

No need to bail yet

And at the end of the day, a few locals would gather to sit by the beach, the children playing and the old men messing with their fishing nets. They had dug out wood canoes with an outrigger to stabilize. If two adults got in one, one of them would need to bail continually while the other paddled with one paddle. But if only one adult, no bailing was needed.

Malaria and Melodrama

Sure beats the bus

Sure beats the bus

We walked out of the propeller prop plane and across the tarmac at the airport in Maumere, a town of about 70,000 on Flores. We entered the airport to pick up our bags and a man walked towards us holding up a sign saying, “Anne family.”

We were surprised because we didn’t expect the guesthouse to send a taxi. The driver told us the price was 180,00 rupiah to drive 25 km to the east, or $18. We bargain him down to 150,000 rupiah ($15), which was probably still too pricey. But as greenhorns you have to quickly get over the fact that you paid too much, especially at airport taxi stands.

A Dutch girl who I sat beside on the plane was coming with us, as her guesthouse was down the road from ours.

“Still the same price?” I asked the driver. “150 rupiah three adults, three kids?”

He nodded.

I noticed that his left eye was much lower than the right. It was a little disconcerting, like you weren’t quite sure what eye to look at, or if both worked. It made him look a little demented and rough.

We arrived at Lena’s Place, which was just off the main road on some sunbaked stretch of highway. Everything was dry and baking hot.

We unloaded our bags and sorted out the payment. We handed the driver 150,000 rupiah, with Lisa paying 50,000 of it, but he backed away, shaking his head.

“No, no, no. She’s not going same place, 50,000 more.” ($5)

“What? Her place is just down the road.”

“No,” he replied, “Another 2 kilometre. You pay.”

“But you agreed three adults for the same price,” I said.

“You not tell me different place,” he says.

Paul hesitantly takes out another $10,000. ($1)

“Maybe we should have been clearer, but we’re not paying more,” I said. “We agreed on 150k. You’ve got to keep your word. Your word is your honour. It’s what we teach our kids,” I continued, pointing to Aaron who was listening to the whole thing. I tailed off into more melodrama, thumping my heart and saying “Your word is here, your word is the most important thing you have.”

Lisa stood firm too, “We’re not paying more.”

“Do you think I’m stupid?” he grumbled in his own show of melodrama. But he gave way and got back in the car to drive her.

“Are you okay being in the car alone with him?” I asked her. She nodded and off they went.

It was an unsettling start to the stay, but I didn’t feel guilty haggling over the price. We made a mistake not being clearer, but 150,000 rupiah was already a lot to pay for a 25 km drive.

Don't put the laptop in the bottom

Don’t put the laptop in the bottom

We walked with our backpacks into the guest house compound. The owner who spoke excellent English told us that the place where we’re staying was a short boat ride away, at Lena 2. Apparently there was also a crazy man who lived near the beach half way between Lena 1 and Lena 2. The boat was waiting, a large outrigger wooden canoe painted blue, with a motor. We walked through the warm water to load our packs on the boat, clambered in and away we went. Aaron was excited to ride in the boat, sitting up high at the back, watching the waves. I noticed there was water in the bottom of the boat and hoped my pack didn’t end up in it, making my clothes soggy. Off we went.

After ten minutes we arrived at the beach. The driver helped carry our bags to the house we’re staying in, a large cavernous plywood and bamboo house. It reminded me of the dolls house I made as a kid out of plywood in the basement that the furnace repair man stepped on and broke.

There was one bedroom upstairs and one downstairs, both empty except for a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net. Downstairs also had a cavernous room with nothing in it save a wooden table with 5 plastic chairs. There were also many mosquitos flying around inside the gloom of the house. “We can’t stay here,” Paul said, “This is a malaria pit.” There was much cursing and gnashing of teeth.

I left to take a walk on the beach. Aaron followed me. The place had three or four cute small bungalows and then our cavernous house. The sun was setting, casting a red glow on the hills to the right. Across the sea were a row of islands. We met an Indonesian girl who stopped to talk in her broken English and I tried my equally broken Indonesian.

We headed back to sleep for the night. Sabine, Aaron and I were sleeping upstairs. The stairs leading to the upstairs bedroom were outside the house, and no lock on the bedroom door. As I fell asleep, thoughts of the angry taxi driver flitted through my mind. What if he was unbalanced and decided to come back in the night to find us?

I also thought about how I could have connected with him and gotten to the root of the issue, instead of arguing over price. It can’t be easy to see wealthy foreigners traipsing around your country when you have so little. Perhaps I should have first asked him how he felt about the tourists. I could also have asked him if that was how he wanted to represent his country. And I realized that I myself need to be more gracious to people from richer countries who come to Vancouver.

My last thought before I fell asleep was where did my ‘angry mama bear’ streak come from? I realized it came straight from my own mother, who will never let a perceived injustice go unchecked, for better or for worse.

A few hours later we woke up, freezing in the middle of the night, which we hadn’t expected in the heat of the late evening. Our bags with warm clothes were downstairs and I was too tired to hunt for them. Between the three of us we shared my shawl – and listened to the noises of bullfrogs.

Making Other Plans

After four days in Ubud and two in Denpasar I began to wonder if Asia is nothing but pools and food to the kids, with a few broken sidewalks thrown in. We could be almost anywhere really.

What is the sound of rice growing?

What is the sound of rice growing?

To be totally honest, Bali is not quite doing it for me. There is so much beauty here and a deep culture, but I feel so removed from the locals. The only people you talk to are the hotel staff, taxi drivers and people in the cafes. And they are so burnt out from the thousands of tourists pouring into Bali that there isn’t much interest in talking to you. I’m sure it must be different in the north of Bali, but we feel more inclined to head somewhere else instead. My mind begins to wander to the woman I stayed with on the island of Flores in her village near Moni in 1992. I wonder if I can find her again.

She spoke only a few words of broken English and I spoke barely any Indonesian, but she wanted to show me her life and tell me something important to her. She was about ten or fifteen years older than me. I slept in her tiny hut with her and her old crone of a mother. I have no idea if she had a husband but there were also two boys about 13 and 15 who were somehow related to her, likely her brothers. I remember she managed to convey to me that I should choose to live differently than the other Westerners she saw coming through on their way to the volcano Kelimutu. Whether or not I lived up to what she asked remains to be questioned.

Just before we came here, when I was packing to leave for the trip and throwing out old papers, I found the letter she wrote me a year after I stayed with her. The letter was in Indonesian and I was never able to translate it, but I’ve brought it with me. The only thing I can make out is that she calls me Sister and there is some mention of Jesus. I need to find the right kindred spirit to translate it for me.

The kids are getting better at carrying their backpacks and I’ve been wearing Sabine’s hiking boots to lighten the load. It begins to seem possible to travel across Flores, so we make a plan to fly to Maumere and travel to Moni from there.

Tea and Time

The next morning we packed up to leave our homestay while the kids waited with great expectation for breakfast. We’ve decided to head to another place to stay on the outskirts of Ubud, thinking this may be quieter and more the atmosphere we’re seeking.

Today 7:30 am ticked by and soon it was 8 am with no sign of the usual breakfast. Tea arrived, and then 8:30 came and went with still no meal. The kids filled their mind with endless questions of when is breakfast coming. I explained that time in Asia is different. When we say 8 am in the West, we mean 8 am, but here, it could arrive anytime in the morning. They think about that and the level of patience that requires, but soon revert to telling us again how famished they are.

Keep walking kids

Keep walking kids

Breakfast eventually arrived and then we walked through the streets with our backpacks. Nerys asked me “Why are the sidewalks so broken? It’s like an obstacle course.”

From Sabine I hear, “I will be so tough after this.”

This time the kids walked in the heat towards our hotel with no complaints, even with the prospect of a taxi dangled in front of them. But no taxi would lower their price and Paul thought they were overcharging us, as they could be, so onwards we walked.

I think about the question we in the West love to ask kids, “Do you like it?” What a deadly question. Maybe it should never be asked, because who really wants to give their child permission to say no, I don’t like it.