Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Rote Island

This is why you travel -- you find places that you'd never heard of before, ever, and then they take up residence in your heart, and bloom in your imagination. Have you ever heard of Rote Island? Probably not.

This was on a very large old map in a restaurant in Nembrala -- how I love old maps.

In case that's not all that helpful in locating it in your mind here it is, in its Indonesian context, Rote with the red circle flag:

The giantest island to the left is Java. Bali is immediately to the east of Java. In the lower right corner, that tiny
bit of land holds Darwin, on the northern tip of Australia. We stayed in Nembrala, which is on the
southwest corner of Rote Island.
There is a very small, uninhabited island just south of Rote that is the southernmost point in Indonesia, so we were practically there. Along with tiny islands surrounding Rote, the combined population is 119,711 (as of 2010). The island itself is just gorgeous, with rolling hills, rice fields (only one crop  last year because of the poor rainy season), some savanna, and lots of acacia palms. We met Derek, a lovely Australian man -- married to a Javanese woman named Christina, they own the Narrows Restaurant -- who told us that there are dozens of languages/dialects spoken on Rote, and until surprisingly recently (how I wish I could remember) they didn't even use currency on Rote: everything was done in barter. On the plane back to Kupang, we sat next to a young lawyer from Australia who has been living on Rote for the better part of a year, and she told us that most of the people on Rote are illiterate. (Though Marc encountered a bunch of schoolkids who practiced English with him -- "What is your name?" so maybe the new generations are being taught to read and it's just the previous generation that is illiterate.)

Anyway. With my lack of imagination for the place, but my limited knowledge of other Indonesian islands, I was absolutely startled by Rote. The people may be poor, I can't find any data on that, but boy are they rich in livestock. The streets were filled with herds of goats, lots of cattle sitting and standing in fields and on school playgrounds, passels of pigs and piglets everywhere including on the beach, some chickens, and occasionally a couple of dogs. The goat population owned the island, it seemed, and they would just stand, sit, lie down in the street and cars would be forced to pick their way through.

I took this picture as we drove slowly into Nembrala, moving through a big herd of goats that
would not move despite horn tapping. Nope. Unmoving. Just goats everywhere. And everyone knows
which goats to belong to which person, somehow.

They also stand around on top of gravestones, on fences, on rocks.

We saw a couple dragging something like this -- a yoke? Punishment? No idea. 
And oh the pigs!! SO MANY PIGS. They tended to have long, narrow snouts, and they were so playful.
They'd frolic, play, chase each other -- we came to see them the same way you'd see dogs, so in fact when
we'd actually see a dog it would take a minute to realize it wasn't a pig. We also saw them on the beach,
snuffling in the sand for crabs. 
We saw a few chickens, not a lot, and the cows were an unusual breed -- Derek pointed out that if you see them from behind they look like deer, with a white rump. I hadn't noticed that until we were heading to the airport, and he was so right. By far the most ubiquitous animals were goats and pigs, which means LOTS of goat poop all over the streets. Since there aren't such things as street lights, walking in the dark means using a flashlight to help navigate the large patches, if possible. I got the same feeling I had in the countryside between Kep and Kampot: the people might be poor but with so many animals around they don't go hungry. Last year apparently the rains didn't come so the rice crop was very small, and apparently the island was yellow and brown, instead of the lush tropical green we saw.

One more funny goat story. Apparently one night a car hit and killed a goat, and the driver just kept going -- a hit and run incident. If you kill a goat, you're supposed to pay its owner (and since everyone knows who each goat belongs to, that's pretty simple). Since the driver just split, Derek said that people just fell on the goat and butchered it in the street, carrying off bits and pieces to their own homes. He said he saw a guy walking down the street with a hindquarter on his shoulder, like you do. We never saw pork or goat on any menus, so we asked Derek about it. Christina is Muslim so they don't serve pork at Narrows, but the goats and pigs are just for the people's own consumption, anyway. The male pigs are kept in the backyards of people's homes and fattened up for various ceremonies and festivals. It's not a dairy culture, so they don't milk the animals, nor do they make goat cheese.

I always say that we travel like children, by which I mean we are too shy to ever hire guides, or talk to people very easily, so we see what we see and try to piece it together with everything else we know. It's rare that we meet someone like Derek, who tells us all about a place, but it's wonderful when we do. So we had noticed the prevalence of music on Rote but didn't know much about it. Luckily, on either side of our hotel there were two enormous ceremonies taking place: a funeral to the left, and a wedding to the right. These are around-the-clock ceremonies, each going on for ~48 hours, maybe? Throughout the night, no kidding. The funeral had what is probably some kind of traditional music, handmade on various pipes and metal rings and plates, and the wedding blasted loud dance music from a stack of giant speakers.

I'd guessed this was a funeral, just based on the quiet way
people were gathered. Plastic chairs were placed in rows out in 
front of a building, and I saw people standing in the doorway.
The men making the music sat at one end, and we could hear
their music even inside our room. I really loved it, and was
often reminded of the goat bells we heard driving around Crete.
I didn't want to stand too close and take video, but you can still
hear the music. Also: goats of course.

The wedding music was much less nice to hear throughout
the night, and as you got closer to it, the volume made it hard to hear
each other talking. There was a huge set-up underneath
a tarp, and rows and rows of chairs. The music went on
through the day and night but we never saw the place filled with people
We think the final, actual ceremony was held the last night, because
we saw a stage set up with a couch and chairs:

We assume the bride, groom and important people sat in those satin-draped seats.

Improvised traffic cones to divert motorcycle traffic around the wedding party.
Inside the tent. Never saw more than a few people sitting there.

When we were eating our last dinner -- strangely, lobster Thermidor at Narrow, lobster boiled by Derek, sauce prepared by Christina -- they'd arranged a couple of local musicians to come play for us. The traditional instrument is called a sasando, and it's plucked like a harp. The music is sung loud and forcefully; Derek described it like minstrel music, designed to tell stories, news, and to be heard over long distances. I loved the sound of it, and we bought a small sasando as a souvenir.

Two men, singing really nice harmonies, only one plucking
the sasando. I really love this video because you can hear
Marc crunching the lobster shell to get the smaller bits of
meat out. I can also see him in the reflection of the glass
case to the right of the musicians.

This is the sasando; the bamboo strips behind fold in and out, like an accordion, to allow the
music to change. The center cylinder is bamboo, always handpainted, and the wire is
strong on screws, circling the center cylinder. It's plucked like a harp. I hand carried this one all
the way home. Mine is small, but they can be much larger.
So we'd heard a lot of music, but thought each one was just its own thing -- sure, weddings and funerals have music, of course. And sure, there would be indigenous forms of music, like the specifics of the funeral music, and the sasando and the style of their songs, and way of singing. But then we were walking back to the hotel after dinner, in the complete dark, under a pitch black sky filled with stars, and we heard music. On the porch of a house set back from the street, there were maybe 10 young men (we couldn't really see that far, I'm guessing), a couple who had guitars, and they were singing harmony. It was the most beautiful thing, we stood there in the dark, listening, until an old woman staring at us made us leave, for fear that she was either angry at our intrusion or that she was about to invite us to sit with them. I've played this video at least a dozen times already, I love the music so much and how it made me feel about the people on the island:

This was the second video I shot, once I heard the one voice
going high -- I just think it's so very beautiful. Motorcycles were
passing here and there so I couldn't get a very good capture,
but it's good enough to always help me remember that moment,
standing amid goat poop on a dark road in Rote Island, in the far south of
Indonesia, a place I'd never heard of before.

When we were talking to that lovely Australian lawyer when we left Rote, I said something about the music, or maybe she asked if we'd heard the music, and she told us that they all make music constantly, that music is a big part of their culture. That young men will just start singing, out of the blue. How I loved that.

Aside from all the animals, and all the music, the rest of our experience at Rote had to do with our hotel -- whether it was the really gorgeous beach and ocean just beyond, or the truly beautiful swimming pool, or the terrible, terrible guest service we got. Marc had been most looking forward to this place, the Seed Resort, so I felt especially sad about that. The place itself was really stunning:

We had a beachfront bungalow -- meaning we could sit on our porch and see the beach and ocean.
But when we arrived, the various staff told us a series of lies and it turned out that a friend of the
owners wanted the room we had reserved so they'd just given our bungalow away, and they
tried to put us in a bungalow further away (and one that reeked of mildew, a hazard of thatched
roofs, I guess). They told us the room wasn't ready, even though it was. It was a confusing and
unhappy start to what would turn out to be more of that kind of thing our entire stay. Lucky for us,
Marc WAS NOT HAVING IT and we did in fact get the bungalow we'd reserved. I was very
grateful for his dogged fight and insistence, because our bungalow was so much better than the
one they'd tried to stick us in. 

And again with an outdoor bathroom -- I'm very shy about my body and try never to look too closely, and prefer
the dark, but in this completely enclosed place, with the shower far away from the door and completely open to
the air and sky, I actually enjoyed the experience. Being all alone and unclothed, in the fresh air, was kind of wonderful.

We never used them, but there were these two hammocks in the bathroom area. That's the shower just behind.

The pool was really wonderful! The end of it, toward the beach, was cantilevered out over a shallow pool,
and the inside of the pool sloped up from the bottom quite sharply. I spent a lot of time sitting on that slope,
with my back therefore to the ocean, reading books.
Me and Elena Ferrante, together again this time in Indonesia

The restaurant is behind me here, and our room off to the behind-left. Sitting at this end of the pool you see the ocean.

The placement made for some wonderful images -- I was walking past the pool as the
sun was going down, heading to the beach to take pictures, and caught this reflection.
Wild, right?
such beautiful flowers

This sidewalk ran just behind the homes and various buildings, so you could either walk in the surf, along the beach, or on
the sidewalk. There were often goats, pigs, and motorcycles along the sidewalk, which was sometimes
surprising to see from the pool.
The hotel is apparently known for its health food -- all vegetarian originally, although the menu itself now lists fish, which was never available. In fact, there were only three things available off the menu, two of which were falafel based (a falafel plate, and a falafel wrap). What we did eat there was always really, really, REALLY good. Their granola bowl at breakfast contained the very best granola I've ever eaten, ever -- very light, not dense, and filled with nuts and seeds and grains and coconut, topped with bananas and mangoes. I could try to make it at home, but it's the proportions and lightness that really made it special.

Even though  there were other things on the breakfast menu that I was interested in,
I got the granola bowl every single morning. The moment my eyes opened, I started thinking
about it, and throughout the day I'd remember it and groan with the pleasure of it.

As my friend Aaron said, shakshuka is having its moment -- but it's just so very good!
Marc ordered it one morning, three eggs simmered in a rich tomato sauce, the yokes just warmed,
really, and served with hummus and baba ganoush on the side, and some puffy bread. If only
I hadn't craved that granola so hard I'd have ordered this every day.
It befits the "Seed Resort," obviously, but they did use seeds quite liberally on many of the dishes,
including this gorgeous and so delicious side salad. The food, limited as the menu was, was quite good. Coffee
was served in a presspot, which was always true everywhere we went in Indonesia. Good by me!
Since their menu was so limited, we were so glad Marc had done some research ahead of time and had found the two local restaurants: Narrows, and Becky Boos. The food at Becky Boos was AMAZING, and we only got to eat there once unfortunately. We tried a second time, but they were closed for a big party unfortunately, and our last night we felt kind of obligated to eat at Narrows because Derek and Christina had been so helpful to us in arranging our departure.

That's the kitchen behind Marc -- we had grilled fish (mine just grilled, Marc's with some kind
of sauce), and they were done absolutely perfectly. Definitely the best food in Nembrala!
I'd never had lobster Thermidor, and really felt too squeamish about eating this other
than the lump tail meat -- ick, so spidery, so shell-crunching, not my thing at all.
But it was very well prepared, and very tasty. The lobster was cooked perfectly,
and the sauce was AMAZING. Marc is a great maker of sauces himself, and
he said it was exceptional. It really was, even if I struggled with the animalness of it.

the animal was SO gorgeous -- Derek told us the tropical lobster is a vegetarian! Who knew!
The white sand beach was endlessly wonderful, whether the tide was in (and so we could easily swim and float in it) or out (and so we could walk far out). The tide schedule was mysterious to us, and we could never figure it out. It didn't relate in any way to a predictable timetable, although I'm sure it's predictable to people who live there.

white sand and giant blue skies filled with puffy clouds

low-ish tide here

lower-ish tide here

medium-level tide -- those poles were visible, but there was some water around the tied-up small boats

shell loot from our very first walk! It turned out to be the best walk for finding shells of our whole time there,
so I'm very glad I collected these.

Now HERE is low tide. So low, amazing.  And a big rainstorm on the horizon, which was always my favorite
thing. I love seeing big weather systems in the distance -- my childhood roots on the Texas plains, I guess.

We didn't see dogs all that often, but these two were playing up and down the beach, chasing each other and frolicking
(like piggies) in the water. So cute.

Although he did actually swim  in the ocean when the tide was higher, a couple of times, here we got to just
sit and float in the very shallow water. It was so clear! And I've never seen SO MANY STARFISH in my life. Wow.

The water was so clear, so beautiful, and when the tide was low, so warm!

I wouldn't have wanted to step on this empty shell.....

Or this living one, sitting in the water with a bit of algae attached.

Just so many starfish, you couldn't take a step without having to watch out for them. This one was WEIRD, six legs.
I said, "Look honey, this starfish is lying on top of another starfish!" He gave me a look, and then I
realized. :)

Most were sand-colored, but we saw a couple of different kinds, like this one....

and this one.
There were endless racks of seaweed drying in the sun, all along the beach

And of course the sunsets were also amazing.

Not as dramatic as on the Lombok beach for sure, but lovely. Australians say the sea 'sparkles' and I saw that.

the deep blues were gorgeous -- and always I love seeing distant weather

This particular evening, the sky was actually this gorgeous lavender color.

Here's some nice color

The little village of Nembrala was kind of adorable and very colorful. The homes were often painted bright, lovely colors, and the graves were often decorated in colorful tiles too.

Kind of Miami Beach colors -- always deeply saturated pastel tones

This one is right next to a church that's either being built or expanded -- this island was dominated by Dutch Protestants,
and the evidence of Christianity was everywhere. In West Timor it was the Catholics, Bali is Hindu, Java is Muslim.
Overall Indonesia is Muslim, of course, but it appears each island has its own dominant religion.

Between the regularity of palm trees, with coconuts littering the ground (I always thought they were skulls), and
their use of these volcanic rocks as stone walls, there's a certain messiness to the look but I really liked it a lot.

Graves seemed to be placed in people's yards. These were just plain concrete.
These were decorated with bright, colorful tiles. They don't seem to be very precious about the graves; Marc
passed these and saw some guys sitting on them, eating bowls of spaghetti. When we'd pass collections of
graves along the road, they were always jammed up with weeds.

LOTS of crosses on Rote (and West Timor) -- but here, they often come with goat. :)

This set, at a crossroads, featured a 2D painted Jesus on the center cross. We didn't see that anywhere else.
One morning we went out for a bike ride and turned down a very quiet road that ran parallel to the beach. It was really beautiful. We had a great time on Rote, together.

happy me, during a pause on our bicycle morning, and....
happy us, playing in the ocean

The whole thing with leaving the island was a complete nightmare. There was something going on with the hotel management, which was a new set of people, we'd heard. Each person told us a different story, no one seemed able to (or interested in) getting any information for us, and each encounter felt like a Magic 8 ball: What would they say this time? When Marc was setting up the trip, someone affiliated with the hotel had presented us the ferry schedule, which was a precisely timed thing according to that person. And so he used that information to arrange our flights. This was essentially the end of our trip -- we were to take the ferry (one scheduled trip that morning) to Kupang, where we would then fly to Denpasar for one night, and then take our complicated set of flights home.

But it was apparently impossible to know when the ferry would run, according to the women at the desk. This wasn't helped by the complete lack of Internet, and then for several hours there was no communication at all for the island, no telephone or Internet connection anywhere because the satellite (or whatever) was down. So we couldn't check for ourselves, and were depending on them. At various times we were told:
  • It's impossible to know.
  • It leaves at 8:30.
  • It leaves at 2.
  • It depends.
  • There is no ferry.
  • It leaves at 9.
  • It leaves at 11, maybe.
  • It's impossible to know.

Well, we had a flight in Kupang to catch, and if there was in fact only one ferry that day we needed to be on it. Each time they told us something, they told us with certainty (even the "it's impossible to know" answer was a certain answer). Finally they told us a time of the ferry and allegedly arranged a car to take us to the ferry (or "promised" to do so), which was an hour away -- and when Marc pressed, would the driver really be there, she said "Yes of course!" which made Marc laugh because he'd emailed them three times arranging a ride TO the hotel when we arrived, each one assuring him that they would be there to get us, and of course no one was there to get us. When the woman asked Marc why he laughed when she said of course, and he told her, she said, "Well, but that was just a miscommunication that time." Insane-making.

So we were at Narrows, talking to Derek and trying to get information about the ferry, and he said yes of course it's knowable. Weather might influence the schedule of course, but it's a knowable schedule. And then Christina asked if she'd like us to arrange a ride, and oh, would we also like a ride from the ferry in Kupang (on West Timor!), and like that it was all arranged. Snap. She called Nixon, who picked us up at 7:30 on our last morning. We were surprised to see him, because he's the same driver we had found on the ferry dock when we arrived and the hotel wasn't there to pick us up -- what a coincidence, the same guy.

At the ferry, he helped us get our tickets, and we did in fact get off roughly on schedule. (The ferry always seems to leave one hour late.) We got to Kupang, and the same driver who picked us up for La Hasienda picked us up again -- oh, and there had been some drama with La Hasienda, apparently. A long-term guest at the hotel had been running a scam, renting a car and then hocking it, and then it turned out that the guest was actually an Indonesian woman masquerading as a man. The police arrested one of the drivers for La Hasienda because the driver had been innocently driving the guest around, as they do for all their guests, so he was eventually released but had been caught up in that drama. We didn't know if it was our driver or not, but he was very friendly -- though quite irritated by traffic.

Since we had several hours to kill before our flight, he dropped us off at a fancy mall and we got some lunch (Christina had recommended this). The restaurant was funny; there was a large display of various foods, and you just pulled out a little card for each thing you wanted to order, then you gave the stack of your selected cards to a waitress and the food was prepared fresh.

Since no one spoke ANY English, it was very helpful! We could see what the food looked like, and the card
did all our communication for us. We ordered tofu, and fish, and green beans, with rice. The food was hot
and very good. And very spicy!
We got to the airport with more than enough time to spare, lots of time to sit and wait -- which I never mind, since I read and knit. But the seats were uncomfortable, and the airport was small and crowded....and then the rain hit. HARD.

Flights were being delayed and canceled left and right.
We finally did get on our flight to Denpasar, luckily.

This is such a familiar moment for me -- with a few more headscarved women than usual of course.
Marc and I sitting on a plane, aisle and window, watching and hoping no one holds the seat between us.

One final note before I leave Rote Island behind. As we moved around Indonesia, we saw so many women wearing headscarves, of all variations of covering. I was struck by the variety, and by how gorgeous some of the scarves were, how beautifully they were worn. Some were quite covering and plain, but many were gorgeous, and tucked and draped in clearly gorgeous ways, and decorated with pins or clips. I found myself wishing to wear such a thing on occasion, just because it was so beautiful. At the time I was also reading Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so I was thinking more about Muslims and Islam than usual. But headscarves are not just one thing, and if we gloss over them like that we miss a lot.

Anyway. Rote Island was wonderful, beautiful, very special. When I remember it, I think I'll remember goats and those boys singing in the dark, and I'll always smile.