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.
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
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
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.