Rosy-fingered dawn1 saw me getting up at 6am to catch the bus east from Labuanbajo to Bajawa. This I missed, thanks to some creative timekeeping from the hotel manager ('Oh, the bus leaves at 7.15', he said confidently, when it actually left at 7am). Still, I caught another bus, and instead of a direct journey, I had to change in some backwater where the bus terminal was home to as many squealing pigs as humans.
After a long ten-hour bus journey through the beautiful volcanic scenery of western Flores, I finally arrived in Bajawa with little more than a hotel name and an extremely bruised coccyx. The hotel proved to be full with a package tour, but after a lengthy search through sleepy Bajawa, I managed to find a place with some help from an Israeli girl called Idit (pronounced 'Ee-deet', not unlike an exotic form of Edith), whom I'd met on the bus.
Surreal things began to happen as Idit and I set off on our evening mission: I wanted to find a bus ticket for the morrow to take me to Moni, and Idit wanted to find out about tours in the area. The whole town seemed to be having private parties, and the streets bustled with smartly dressed Indonesian families. Idit decided to poke her nose into one of these noisome gatherings, and before you could say, 'Where's the party?' we were introduced to a middle-aged man and a young boy, were plonked down on a couple of plastic chairs, and were offered some tea. All around us milled smiling locals, with new arrivals appearing all the time, all shaking the hands of the man and child, all thrilled to be there. Had we stumbled on a crazy birthday party, or was it something more bizarre?
No, it wasn't a birthday, explained a woman who knew rudimentary English and who was sitting between Idit and myself. Exactly what it was, though, remained a mystery; there was a cake, with the boy's name emblazoned on it, and people kept giving him envelopes containing money (or so I supposed from the way he eyed their contents). Confused, Idit and I accepted the invitation to have a little food, so we did, being careful to take only a very little from the various scrumptious dishes laid out on the table.
After some very basic small talk, not helped by me leaving my phrase book back at the hotel, the woman suggested we go to another party. Another? Well, why not; either these Bajawans were crazy, or we were a party to a party the likes of which we'd never seen. If Bajawa was going to go ballistic, I sure wanted in on the action.
The second party prompted déjà vu. We shook hands with the father and son, admired the cake, accepted some more delicious food, marvelled at the decorations and loud, crackling music, and smiled our best cocktail party smiles. Before long we were whisked off to a third party... and it would have gone on all night if we hadn't made our excuses and left, much to the distress of our hostess, who was obviously getting quite a thrill by being able to bring a couple of westerners into this strangest of communal parties (and, judging by the photos being taken of us with various other party-goers, so were the other locals).
It turned out that my only night in Bajawa was timed perfectly to coincide with Confirmation Day, the Sunday when young boys throughout the country get confirmed. Flores is mostly Catholic (yet another religion in highly multi-cultural Indonesia), and the custom is for the families to throw open parties to celebrate the confirmations, to which anyone can go. However, to ensure that this practice doesn't cost the party-throwers too much, party-goers give a donation to the proud father upon entry (hence the envelopes). We were spared this financial sacrifice because we paid with our novelty value, but suddenly it all became clear, and I realised that I'd been wishing young boys and girls throughout Bajawa a happy religious life... and this from a man who only got confirmed because he thought it was a good idea to take up all options, especially those that were free.
My next mission was to try to find a ticket to Moni for the morning, an impossible task on a Sunday evening, especially when everyone was out revelling in each other's houses. I tracked down the bus office with the help of a local, and found out that tickets weren't available any more, and that I would have to get up early and get to the bus terminal to ensure a lift. This was a bit of a pain: normally the buses in Flores will pick you up from your hotel, but only if you have a ticket, and the bus terminal was a good few kilometres out of town.
But I should have remembered the first law of Indonesian transport: if you stand around for long enough looking like a lost tourist, then someone will come along and coerce you onto their bus, a good prospect if it's going your way, an expensive inconvenience if it's not. I got up early on Monday – 5.30am, to be precise – and wandered into town, slowly making my way to the bemo station, where I hoped to catch a bemo to the bus terminal. That's when I heard a voice.
'Hey Meester! You go to Moni? Moni???' Of course I was, so I chucked him my pack and squashed myself into the bus between the chickens and spare tyres. From Bajawa, tourists either go west to Labuanbajo, or east to Moni, so I was an easy target for the bus hawkers.
Bus hawkers are an astounding breed. They sniff out potential bus travellers with an enthusiasm that borders on the rabid, and spotting tourists seems to make them even more enthusiastic. Hanging out of the back door of the bus, holding on by fingertips and cigarette butts as it careens round another hairpin, they shout at any vaguely sentient being, 'Maumere! Moni! MauMERE! MoNI! MAUMERE! MONI! MAUMEREMONIIIII!' Presumably they employ the same logic that the British abroad use when trying to make themselves understood in a foreign language: shout; shout louder; and if they still don't want to get onto your bus, try to persuade them by screaming the destination at a lung-ripping intensity, and this time with feeling. It works; sometimes you wonder if the people on the bus actually meant to go to Maumere, or whether they simply popped down the shop for some eggs, and ended up being cajoled into a journey to some mythical far-off land. At least, that would help explain the wonderfully surreal nature of the Indonesian bus system...
1 A quotation from Homer, not a lesbian porno movie. Not to be confused with being up at the crack of dawn, either, which is quite a different experience.