After exactly 40 days and 40 nights in Bali it was time to move on. Not because we wanted to, it had more to do with the fact we’d went through the tedious process and payment of having our visas extended another thirty days, and it would be rather unfortunate and somewhat naive to spend two whole months here in Indonesia and not experience more than just Bali.
Admittedly, leaving Ubud sparked bittersweet emotions. We’d befriended and adored a handful of locals, adopted a daily routine, established where we liked to buy particular things, where we liked to eat, drink, etc. – and being there had become quite spiritually gratifying.
Our guesthouse was as clean and manicured as they come, our friends who ran it were as considerate and generous as long lost family. Our room, equipped with wifi, a hot shower and a western toilet, was tidied and mopped on a daily basis. Fresh fruit cut up and ready for us at every morning’s sunrise, along with a large thermos of hot water conveniently placed on our balcony every morning at 6 a.m. for that day’s worth of coffee consumption. It was the little things (for those curious our room was 25 bucks a night, 5 bucks over our budget). We had quickly nestled ourselves into the everyday life of Ubud, and given that we were so overwhelmed and endeared by the Balinese people, history and culture, it was an easy thing to do.
For good reason, Bali is one of the most popular tourist spots in all of SE Asia, consequently it was important to both Ashlie and me that our next foot forward be one down a road far less traveled. A month ago I’d never heard of the island of Flores, and couldn’t have told you where it existed on the map.
Flores is east of Bali and west of Timor, three times the size of Bali yet ¼ the population, this gem is another Indonesian island that oozes diversity. Miles and miles of lush and undeveloped landscape surrounded by both black and white sandy beaches. Massively steep mountains throughout, jaggedly divided up by the occasional waterfall and narrow twisted road. The scenic views are simply breathtaking. As in most developing countries I’ve travelled, there are things to be seen in Flores that make it feel like you’ve taken one huge step back in time. Not only in the natural beauty of the untouched terrain, but also in the primitive ways the people still live.
You need not look far in Flores to see the sobering levels of poverty, and consequently, pollution is plentiful. The locals have much darker skin, wider noses and predominately stronger cheekbones, giving them a more indigenous appearance. Men chain-smoke, women constantly chew and spit ‘sirih’ (lumps of a beetle nut and tobacco mix), permanently staining their mouth and teeth a dark red color.
Often barefoot and naked, dirty toddlers play throughout the village streets. You’ll also find kids as young as four or five working long hours in the fishing villages or the rice fields, the elderly and old do the same. People here seem hungry, both literally and figuratively speaking. Money is crucially important, but they’re not looking to save it (they don’t have bank accounts), rather just to spend on that day’s worth of food. And even with all the genuinely welcoming smiles, it’s clear that life is harder here in Flores. Undoubtedly a destination not yet so paved into the tourist path, the first week here has been anything but comfortable and convenient – which is exactly what we thought we were looking for.
Yes, trading Bali’s tourist friendly, paved roads for these far less traveled, dusty pathways, is exactly what we wanted. But, as a traveler, anytime you make such a drastic change in scenery and economic stature, there come risks and there come rewards.
The picturesque views from our beachfront bungalow are exactly what those organic, adventurous folk looking to get lost in the middle of nowhere dream about. No locks on doors, no a/c, no running water (rather a big bucket of cold water used to ‘shower’, and also used to pour into the toilet after you’ve done your business, ‘flushing’ the toilet), no computers, no TVs. Unreliable spurts of electricity only available during a few hours of each afternoon. It was a healthy dose of what it feels like to be disconnected from the rest of the world. Unquestionably, something we all could use a bit more of.
That said, word to the granola-y wise, when staying in a place that is so deeply entrenched in jungle-like terrain, dispose of anything and everything that remotely resembles food or snack. We failed to do so and the result transformed our bamboo bungalow into a playground for fearless mice. Being woken up by the sound of hellbent rodents chewing through mosquito nets, our bags and our clothes. Ultimately gnawing their way into tightly wrapped and rubber banded Ritz crackers, and the baguette of bread we’d forgotten was buried in one of the backpacks. So, after our first night in paradise: The Rats 1, The A-team 0.
The following evening, after removing anything that could’ve remotely been mistaken for something edible (lotion, toothpaste, gum and lip balm) from our bungalow, the generator cut off for the night. It only took a few rounds of waves hitting the sandy shores outside our door before our new family of friends returned looking for dinner. We had securely and strategically repacked our entire backpacks, but these little bastards were on a mission. Attempting to use my phone’s light as an imaginary blowtorch, the puny glare seemed to be just enough to jab them away. Determined, they continued to come back. Again and again. Darting and shuffling their claws back and forth over our heads, using the long strips of bamboo holding the bungalow together to bridge their pathway to our bags. At one point, after a few moments of silence, one of the rats slipped from the slick bamboo above, landing directly next to Ashlie. She immediately jumped and screamed, which scared the shit out of me, causing me to do the same. There we were, once again, invaded and under attack in the confines of our bungalow. Even though we were both able to appreciate to remoteness and beauty of where we were, we simultaneously looked at one another and whispered, “F-this, we outta here”.
With holes now in our clothes and bags, the army of ballsy mice and two sleepless nights was enough. And while I’m complaining, the food that took half an hour to make was tasteless and overpriced. And, the beer was warm.
Unapologetically, we were out early the next morning. We repacked all of our bags and hoofed up the hot, dusty road to catch a Bemo taxi that could carry us to town. Seemingly excited to head west towards Moni, it was on that five-hour bus ride that we realized we’d brought some new friends along with us. As if the overly crowded bus that plumed with cigarette smoke and villager’s body odor weren’t enough, we both began to emphatically scratch dozens of bites around our ankles, hips and armpits, between 40 and 50 on each one of us.
Son-of-a-b*tch! Bed bugs. I knew the challenge that lie ahead. I’d been down this road once before. Back in 2008, while backpacking from Mexico to Brazil, my ex-girlfriend, Marta, and I had a nasty two-week battle with mites. Mites are a different monster altogether. They borough themselves into your skin, defecating their offspring and then chewing their way back out, only to have their offspring hatch days later and consequently eat their own way. Apologies for the graphic description, I just want to emphasize how important it was that we nip this dilemma in the bud.
Although bed bugs are not as vicious, they are equally as elusive and quick to reproduce. So it was crucial that we act fast. Once we got settled in the tiny town of Moni, we completely emptied our backpacks. And with the generous help of the local villagers where we were staying, we drowned each and every piece of clothing we own into a boiling pot of water. There is no such thing as a hot water heater around these parts. No washers. No dryers. Over an open campfire we boiled half a dozen large gas containers worth of water, using sticks and stones to submerse our belongings into the steaming pots.
Once resigned to the fact that this laborious mission was something that had to be done, we had a couple of cold beers and made the most of our lengthy laundry days. Soaking, wringing and hang-drying every single thing we own. Leaving our hands red, raw and tired. The entire process took us the better part of two days. On the bright side, we didn’t have to buy an iron and meticulously drag it over every last inch of our clothing and backpacks. A painstakingly ass-whip of a chore done while conquering the mites in Guatemala.
So, admittedly, our first week here on the island of Flores has been more challenging and uncomfortable than anything else. But, as I righteously attest to Ash, it will be these types of experiences that create the proudest of memories. Consequently, we were able to spend two entire days up close and personal with generations of a culture so diversely unlike that of our own. Allowing us to chew on a big, fatty chunk of what the daily life and struggles within that small village taste like.
Being a part of their daily ritual of sitting around the backyard table playing cards, screaming and shouting at one another, the women force-feeding us plates of fried cow, the grandparents laughing at me weaving in-and-around the stray dog that bit me. For those two days, we were a part of that family.
Though difficult to translate the connection, imagine having a family of villagers who don’t speak a lick of your language, and can’t even pronounce the R in your name, as a team, bend over backwards and do everything in their power to help you in a time of need. When you travel, this will find you. It’s my answer to the question, ‘Why do you love and continue to travel’. For me, it’s the connection, the human element.
We’ve since rid ourselves from all unwelcome creatures. We have headed to west. Now residing for a few days in a plush hotel room here in Labuan Bajo, western Flores. Big, white fluffy pillows and a squishy queen-size bed. An impeccably clean bathroom that has endless amounts of flowing hot water. The wifi is dodgy and the room is double our budget – but this splurge feels pretty damn appropriate.