23 sailors pile into a rusty bus fit for 20. Lembata, Indonesia is not a tourist destination, but here we are, setting out on a day-tour with no idea of the destinations but well aware that bomb-fishing traumatizes coral reefs and mountain roads are volcanic, and not in a, wow, let’s try and climb them, but in the gorgeous, let’s sail past.
This far east on the archipelago, Indonesia is pure. Western food, words or fashion haven’t crept into thatched shacks. Toilets are low squat, and public services are limited to schools and voting ballots. Garbage disposal, transport, clean water, and electricity are the responsibility of the people, who on average earn $1,358 US dollars annually. Farming sustains most households, but the goal is individual consumption, not profit. Lembata’s government, just like most regencies in East Nusa Tenggara, is desperate to establish tourism to feed the economy and prevent teenagers from fleeing to Bali or Lombok to cash in on tourist’s flippancy with the Rupiah.
The over crowded bus is a test-run for what tourists like and how to attract more. The smallest sit on laps and one fool hangs out the open door. After 10 minutes of no air conditioning and my bum and back sticking to torn vinyl, the fool’s risk of brain damage from a passing truck or falling coconut seems well worth it. The tour guide tells us the first stop is a fishing hamlet, but won’t share the rest of the five destinations, only that they will be, good, good, good, very good. Here, every village has a single purpose.
The third stop, a thatch-house brewery, is by far my favorite. A fire pit sits at the center of a dirt-floor distillery, and the air is dense with rotting fruit and Malibu. Arak, coconut vodka, is made all over the island as a sideline business and if you want to make your own, you will need a plantation of coconut trees and an Indonesian who can climb them clutching a machete in his teeth.
- One fire pit.
- One metal grate.
- One deep pot with a hole cut out of its lid (the hole in the saucepan’s lid should match the diameter of the bamboo shoots).
- Two, three-meter long bamboo shoots as thick as your ankle.
- A glass jar.
- A strong liver.
In a deep saucepan, boil the fermented coconut nectar. Vapors travel through the saucepan lid’s hole into the hollowed-out bamboo shoot. The shoot extends vertically to the rafters and meets a diagonal stalk that cools the spirited steam on its descent to the glass jar on the floor. Walah, you have home-brew, Indonesian style. I pay four dollars to fill my 2-liter Clean Canteen with sweet, 35 percent spirits.
At the next village, the two hours of traditional dances “enlivened” by drums and bells beg for a swig of Arak. We sit under a tarp in front of the stage as elders offer water and florescent pink rice-flour cakes. The locals stand in the sun, wrapped in Ikat, and sweating like warm fish balls in Tupperwear. Sharing our shelter is a tree, a couple of years away from being a shade-shelter of its own. A local man unsheathes his machete, and the tent erupts in “please, no,” “it’s ok,” “don’t kill it,’’ but the sapling is on the ground and dragged away before anyone can tie themselves to it.
The music starts and five-year-old boys wearing hand-woven sarongs quickly overshadow the sapling’s slaughter. The pocket-sized warriors clash wooden shields as girls twirl in between them. Mothers, fathers, and grandparents point and laugh, the whole village turning out for the festivities. The Bupati, chief, calls on the seated to dance and I spring off my numb bum, keen to showcase the moves I learned yesterday on stage in front of 2000 plus Indonesians. An old lady offers me a sash and I bow to a right angle so she can reach my head. I thank her and try to emulate the swirls and twirls of the little girls, hoping my flailing arms will distract onlookers away from clumsy footwork. I leave with sweat patches and a sash and pile back into the bus. The final stop, a salt village, also begs for a few nips from my drink bottle. Who doesn’t like a bit of salt rim on their coconut cocktails?
Under rusted tin rooves, saltwater bubbles in grimy woks as cracked hands stir the emerging crystals. Children’s laughter pulls me outside where, in the shade of a tamarind tree, four kids kick around a dried gourd, their soccer ball rolling between pigs waffling the soil in search of uncollected tamarin pods. I pass back a stray gourd and pain swells from my toes. It’s not books, money or food kids begged for at the last three islands, but soccer balls.
After 9 hours of driving on roads suited more to BMX bikes than cars, my back craves a chiropractor and every inch of skin is dusty. My stomach protests the dried fish eaten at lunch, and mosquito bites polka-dot my sunburnt legs. The whaling village, where men spear all but the blue-whale from boats half the size of their catch remains unvisited. Rotting blubber hanging off skeletons the size of mac trucks is not a kid-friendly tour.
The locals may need some tips on catering to soft-shelled tourists, but tourists visiting Indonesia definitely need a lesson on local living.