Janie Walker leaves her home comforts behind in Indonesia
They’re playing an Indonesian karaoke version of the song Sexy and I Know It and I’m about to eat a plate of meat that looks like duck. So far I haven’t seen any ducks in the mountains of Flores — but I have seen a lot of skinny dogs.
In search of the “real Indonesia”, my partner Dean and I are at a local celebration in the village of Tado in Flores — three islands to the east of Bali.
Tado is part of a community ecotourism and education network and we’re having an “authentic, cultural homestay experience”. It’s off the main tourist route: we’re sick of tourists, especially Australians who wear bikini tops in temples and Europeans who screw locals down on a $1.50 taxi ride into town.
In this village of 250 people, most of our tourist dollar goes directly to the families who live here.
When we arrived we were given a lukewarm, pink tea made from tree bark. It didn’t taste too bad (a bit like weak raspberry cordial with cinnamon) but I hoped that if it was made with local water that it had been boiled.
A chicken wandered into the dirt-floored kitchen. It jumped on to one of the huge woven bins filled with rice, perched on the rim and placed its bottom over the bin. I realised that to enjoy this experience I was going to have to stop thinking about dodgy local water and chickens pooing in our dinner.
Our guide pointed out a ngkiong — the native bird famed for its singing. He told us of a local composer who had written about their birdsong: “This land is from our ancestors so don’t cut down the trees: even if the land is dry, it is your land.”
We’re now joining the locals to celebrate a wedding anniversary and First Communion under patchy tarpaulins with about 200 residents. The kids practise their English, or they just stare. We like that — it’s real.
Unlike Bali, which is predominately Hindu, or Lombok, which is mainly Muslim, the people of Flores are almost entirely Catholic. Blame the Portuguese colonists. But in Flores their white-man religion seems slapped on because the older indigenous culture is so strong.
Simultaneously, there’s a downpour and the power goes off. Everyone cheers and suddenly many cellphones are acting as torches. It’s no wonder the power went out — the source is an iffy-looking extension cord running from somewhere to the village. Many houses have solar power — the one we’re staying in has one lonely energy-saver bulb that lights our homestay room.
I see a gecko run up the wall. We’ve been told how to count a gecko’s call — if it stops on an odd number, there’ll be rain. And nine is an extra lucky number.
We’re asked to get up and sing karaoke. Dean is horrified — he’s a worse singer than I am, and painfully shy. We laugh and say no but quickly realise this is being interpreted as extremely rude. To show respect to our host, we must stand up and sing.
I can’t think of one song we could possibly bumble our way through. I want to sing a waiata — ludicrous, but from somewhere deep it seems right. How can I express my gratitude for this experience with She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain?
We get up, with sweaty hands and pounding hearts, and sing an awful a capella version of Te Aroha . At least I do: Dean tries to sink into the floor. We asked a lovely young Indonesian woman from Java called Deisy to translate and I know I have got it wrong. But I don’t think that the many soggy, content, money-poor, beaming faces mind. They cheer and clap wildly as though we’ve given them a standout performance on the largest stage in the world.
When it’s polite to do so, we say our goodbyes and leave with Deisy.
In the morning and the sounds of roosters, dogs, children and men instructing their women come through the gaps in the walls.
We have an awkward nasi goreng breakfast with the family. We are sitting in plastic chairs on the other side of the table, while the family are on the other side of the room. We feel like plastic royalty.
It’s such an odd balance: Yes, we need lice-free beds and non-giardia water (and loo paper is nice) but we hate feeling like tourists. But that’s what we are (or maybe travellers is a cooler word). If we were genuinely seeking an authentic experience we’d have to work the fields under a hot sun for 10 hours a day.
In neighbouring Bali, even the chairman of its tourism board says: “We’re loving Bali to death.” Most tourists visit seaside towns like Kuta, Seminyak and Sanur there. Not everyone sees or cares what’s going on with empty plastic bottles, rubbish, the diminishing natural water source, massive hotels in lieu of local trees or fishing families — and don’t get me started on the neglected cats and dogs. Many locals in Bali and Flores told us how government corruption is stopping positive progress.
And what I found most disturbing was that an entire generation of young people are fleeing their villages to make it big in the tourist towns. These young people are choosing to work for a pittance to serve tourists rather than keep their village thriving. Their 90-year-old grandmothers are living their last days in the family rice field — so bent over that one day they’ll fall forward and die in a bunch of wet fibrous roots.
Rice should remain the food of their god and their bellies, but these young people are getting tummy aches on sandwiches in Kuta.
Flores is still on the road less travelled and isn’t being loved to death, yet. Places like Tado and organisations like the one for which Deisy works — Indecon, the Indonesian Ecotourism Network — are fighting to ensure Flores never gets there.
We’re about to say goodbye and I hear a gecko … seven, eight … I hug Deisy and swap Facebook details. I wave goodbye to the people even when they’ve walked away. I’m in extreme need of a shower and a bag of potato chips, but I also desperately want the grit and extraordinariness of the past couple of days to remain and have a continuing positive impact. And not for just for myself.
Tado village, Indonesia
Any domestic flight from Denpasar (Bali) to Labuan Bajo (Flores). The homestay will pick you up.
Homestay tips: Take loo paper, hand sanitiser, mosquito net and a sarong (to put over the bed). Let go of comfort. Embrace awkwardness and smile through it.