31 - Inielika & Wogo (Bajawa, Flores, Indonesia)
Welcome to Hobbitland. More Anus of Fire. Show up and the treasure be yours. Diminishing returns? Do-it-yourself graveyards. The Joker and Areca nutjobs.
by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac
SACK IN THE BADDLE AGAIN. I headed east to Bajawa via a sleepover in Ruteng. It was a pleasant two hundred sixty-eight kilometers. Smooth roads. Winding curves. Lots of scenery. The traffic was sparse enough for me to savor the ride with minimal risk. Always a blessing. For the time being, I left Muslimdom and entered the Pope’s domain. (Gotta love the fucking missionaries, eh?) No checkpoints. No initiation. Just a seamless transition from mosques to churches. Not sure if it occurred to me then, but I wasn’t just island skipping, I was faith hopping as well. Bali: Hindu. Lombok, Sumbawa: Muslim. Flores: Roman Catholic. If only I could find a Jewish island to complete the dominant triad. A Jewish island in Indonesia? Better off searching for Atlantis.
A youth marching band paraded Bajawa’s main street the day I arrived. I never found out why because I didn’t want to know. Sometimes random needs to stay random in your imagination. Besides, why not add my own details? Obviously, the local Ngada heard of my impending arrival and rolled out the red carpet in anticipation. Nothing screams importance like a douchebag on a Honda Phantom. Nothing.
Believe it or not, there was a volcano nearby. Don’t find many of those in Indonesia. Welcome to the Anus of Fire. It’s huge. This one was quiet but had potential. There were eruptions in 1905, 1908, and 2001. The January 2001 eruption spilled lava, charred a few acres, and dusted Bajawa with a light smattering of ash. Inielika is a complex volcano, meaning it has numerous craters spread over 190 sq km. Its highest point is a 1559 km caldera. I’ve never met a volcano that didn’t interest me, so I deemed a visit necessary. I hired a guide for a peek and as a chaperone to an old-school Ngada village.
There are various ethnicities within the Ngada Regency, which includes Bajawa and the surrounding region. Most speak a variant of the same language, though there are exceptions. I find it fascinating that people living in proximity have different languages, the result of historically isolated villages separated by mountainous island terrain. Years earlier, I’d visited Papua New Guniea where this phenomenon is magnified. Eight hundred and fifty-two known languages (not dialects) in a country smaller than Spain and a population of eight million. Hard to fathom. Astonishing. Probably not a coincidence that Flores is a mere hop, skip, and jump from PNG, geographically speaking.
Being the sole tour member, my guide Alfonse suggested he catch a ride with moi. This made sense logistically but sparked internal concern. Killing myself is one thing, taking an innocent tour guide with me is something else entirely. I brushed aside unease and assured my superego I was far enough along in my Jedi training to handle a passenger. He hopped on board and we headed north.
The volcano (or the specific crater of interest to be more accurate) path begins in a small village behind a church. The trek is mild, taking roughly an hour and a half over relatively flat terrain. Along the way, I saw Big-Ass Bamboo (I believe that’s the scientific name) and had Alfonse stand beneath it for perspective. Inielika was dormant so I had the privilege of frolicking in the volcanic sandbox, a sandbox resembling a bomb crater more than a volcano.
Upon return, the church grounds were littered with churchgoers. As photos will attest, they weren’t shy. This was the highlight of my day, and I never grew tired of these encounters. Rigid, infectious smiles were the norm. Gratitude. Joy. Intimate curiosity. Only one requirement: Be there. That’s it. Show up and the treasure is yours. I left as high as the proverbial kite.
In a cramped corner of my conscious mind lies a reserve of regret birthed through ill-fated choice and nourished with hindsight. This rueful miasma often expands, sometimes bubbling slowly to the surface, sometimes erupting like a geyser. Insatiable curiosity? Addictive wanderlust? Subconscious self-sabotage? Elaborate cognitive escape? All the above?
I’m haunted by a past dearth of moderation. At times, it anchors me to a sorrow I can’t outrun. I have but one true consolation. Memories. Memories like the onslaught of exuberant Catholic Floresians in the foothills of Inielika. Regret vanishes and for a few precious moments the rigid, infectious smile of my past returns. True, I paid a heavy price for existential fecklessness, but I also garnered a high return, as intangible as it may be.
Next, on to Wogo Baru (new), a traditional Ngada village. This village has a twin, Wogo Lama (old). I suspect expansion was spurred by a growing population and tourism (emphasis on the tourism). I’m not sure how many people actually live there. It felt a little contrived, very neat and tidy with a movie set quality. Still, I presume if nothing else ceremonies are conducted regularly. (Party village?)
The customary layout comprises two rows of thatched high-roofed (think rounded A-frame) houses on stilts. They face each other across an open space containing ngadu (parasols about seven feet high with a carved wooden pole and a thatched roof) and bhaga (miniature version of thatched-roof house). These symbolize the continuing presence of the ancestors (ngadu for the males; bhaga for females). There are nine sets in Wogo representing nine different clans. Ceremonies bring the clans together and usually involve the bloody sacrifice of livestock to sanctify births, marriages, deaths, and even house construction.
Building a house? Want good fortunate? Only one way to be sure. Slaughter shit, specifically pigs and buffaloes. Only way to be sure. Jawbones hang on the porch to commemorate the christening. Folks back home hang wind chimes. Different strokes.
Discount burial, anyone? Many residents bury relatives in their front yards. Back in the day, ancestors would go in the village center, between the ngadus and bhagas. When bodies piled up, villagers began keeping Ma and Pa closer to home. Many tribespeople adhere to this practice outside the traditional setting. I noticed modern dwellings with gravestones in the lawn. And yet, according to Alfonse, graveyards are also common. He said ancestor hoarding is not ubiquitous.
I came upon two older women shooting the shit on a porch, a scene as natural and universal as the human genome itself. There’s a vigor and vitality to the pair shining through the photo. I wish I could go back and grill them on lifestyle and eating habits. I’m guessing the one on the right could’ve given me a run for my money in a wrestling match. The fact she resembles a vampire resting after a recent meal helps bolster the aura. No, the woman is not a stand-in for the Joker. Her scarlet lips come from chewing Areca nut, not a fresh kill.
Areca nut (a.k.a betel nut) is often combined with betel leaf to produce a mildly intoxicating stimulant with a nicotine-like buzz. It’s an effective appetite suppressant, creates a poopload of saliva, and inevitably leads to scarlet spit stain decorations anywhere it’s frequently used. I had the pleasure years ago in Papua New Guinea. There it’s mixed with lime creating a taste I can only describe as vile. Absolutely vile. Also, it’s terrible for your health and affects almost every organ in the body. Mouth and esophageal cancer are common. But it is a great way to interact with the locals if you find yourself so inclined. The women appeared robust, but I wonder if there were issues under the hood. More questions without answers.
I capped off this exquisite day with an exhilarating ride to a hot springs forty minutes northeast of Bajawa. The scenery en route to Mangeruda Springs in Soa was equally exquisite. Volcano backdrop? You bet your ass. Throw a rock in rural Indonesia, hit a volcano, ricochet off a chicken, settle on a goat. I also saw country folk cruising the scene on a unique propulsion device. What happens when a giraffe and a go-kart get down? You get whatever the that thing was. Vereh nice. I considered a straight up trade.