Flourishing in Flores, Indonesia

Curiosity about Flores was the reason for our presence on the 500 kilometre flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo. The plane flew spectacularly over the crater of Lombok Island’s majestic Mount Rinjani, then the islands of Sumbawa and Komodo, and many smaller ones. Labuan Bajo is a small town in west Flores, with a population of around 10,000 that is rapidly growing, mainly in response to increasing western tourism. Many visitors come for diving and snorkelling and to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, as the town is near Komodo National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guidebooks aptly describe Labuan Bajo as having a ramshackle air. There’s much corrugated iron – some rusty, otherwise brightly painted – and the buildings are an interesting mixture of old and new. Many have open-sided pavilions to take advantage of cooling breezes, and to catch the views: the harbour and its boat traffic, the appealing setting of islands and colorful sea, and the town’s hypnotic sunsets. Curiously, it also has about five Italian restaurants with Italian ownership.

Flores illustrates Indonesia’s diversity; here you are not in Bali, Java or Sumatra. Although Flores is nominally Christian, with the inevitable Indonesian underlay of adat (customary tradition and rules), Labuan Bajo has a significant Muslim population.

This is noticeable as mosques in town have spent heavily on their sound systems. One of the town’s largest mosques is located next a shop specialising in public address sound systems. There must be serious competition for adherents, as the volume level was unmatched in my travelling experience. Although difficult to encapsulate in a few words, it was as if 3 or 4 heavy metal bands located a few hundred metres apart were competing to have your total attention, while playing different songs in different keys at a volume suitable for a major outdoor rock festival. Unfortunately in the case of the mosques, while some of the sound was pre-recorded and beautiful musically (I enjoy Arabic and Middle Eastern music), several competitors had live performers who apparently acquired their positions on the basis of their inability to maintain a key.

From our hotel  balcony 500 metres or more up the hill, the competing volumes from the mosques made it impossible to conduct a conversation. We quickly adjusted to the afternoon call to prayer – between 4 and 5pm – by designating it the Call to Drinks. Travel encourages adaptability. Early morning calls to prayer (at around 4am and 5am) were less open to such innovation. No doubt for locals these experiences are part of the aural fabric. If they travelled to Paris, would the chiming of the bells of Notre Dame be a strange intrusion?

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo National Park
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo Island and National Park, as the crimson sky fades into twilight.

After my companions rather haughtily declined my invitation to see Komodo dragons, we hired a traditional wooden fishing boat with two crew members (cost AU$100) and spent an idyllic day: a trip through sparkling tropical seas, past many islands, finally disembarking at Kanawa Island. The island is quite small, with an attractive sandy beach backed by hills, shady trees to loll under, and a small restaurant, and modest set of bungalows. The snorkelling at Kanawa is excellent and safe. The bottom shelves gently from the beach to the drop off and the coral is very colourful, the fish even more so. A young Balinese in her shop in Sanur later described her snorkelling experiences on the island beautifully: ‘It’s like swimming in an aquarium.’

It pays to be curious.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter F.

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Bali Dawn

Bali Sunrise
Bali Sunrise

The sun begins to light up the sky over south-east Bali.

In the distance the island’s holy mountain, Gunung Agung, emerges from the morning mist.

As the light increases, a  fisherman casts his net around the moored traditional fishing boats – Jungkung in Balinese and Prahu in Bahasa Indonesian – while a couple of boatmen already have their boats moving in readiness to brave the often turbulent tidal streams and waves offshore.

The boats look like aquatic praying mantises in the morning light. With their canoe-like hulls and bamboo outriggers, they have a reassuring seaworthiness for their fishermen skippers, as well as for visitors who travel in them for snorkelling and diving pursuits, or as transport to the beautiful Gili Islands off Lombok’s coast.

A family of five comes to the beach for their morning ritual, saluting the mountain and the rising sun. They wade chest deep into the water, releasing and watching their floral offerings drift out to sea.

Others, alone or in groups, are sometimes silent, or murmuring, or conversing. They imbibe the dawn while the sea at this coral reef protected beach quietly and soothingly adds sounds to the hypnotic scene.

On a clear morning, across the Lombok Straight, another volcanic shape can be seen, 3726 metre high Mount Rinjani, as well as the white cliffs of Nusa Penida, another island about 15 kilometres across the sea.

The dawn described above is a world away from the gross features of mass tourism that afflict a small part of Bali, yet it takes place at a major tourist destination. Here, traditional rituals, culture and ceremonies flourish at least as strongly as a generation ago.

Perhaps the wealth generated by tourism has had some positive effects. Historians often suggest that the European Renaissance, the flowering of the arts, literature and intellectual pursuits, required a degree of wealth, patronage and leisure to promote those cultural activities. As in Bali?

As a regular visitor to Bali and quite a few other islands in Indonesia’s 17,000 plus archipelago over many decades, Bali remains a beguiling place to visit for the warmth, humour, respect and culture of the people, the great food, and the extraordinary diversity and beauty of its landscapes, beaches and undersea. Traditional life and culture have survived better than some imagine.

This post forms part of Fiona’s  A-Z guidebook, a monthly travel journal.