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Serene by the Sea in Flores

On Bali's less-known neighbor, there's no hurry, no worry and no crowds--just a quiet island full of natural wonders and a collage of cultures

June 25, 2000|KRISTIN JOHANNSEN | Freelance writer Kristin Johannsen recently returned to the U.S. from Asia, where she lived for 13 years

Surrounded by sacred statues, Bernardus spoke of life "before we had religion." Missionaries have come since the 1500s and are the reason 85% of Flores is Catholic, while 90% of all Indonesia practices a form of Islam tinged with Hindu and Buddhist concepts.

As we left Bernardus, I couldn't resist asking: How can I live to be 100? The answer, through Yanto's translation, was nearly identical to what my 90-year-old grandmother always says: "No smoking, no drinking, no stress. Pray a lot, and work in your garden."

Others may attribute Bernardus' longevity to the serene land where he lives. Jopu sits near the foot of Keli Mutu, a 5,500-foot inactive volcano that hides one of the world's eeriest sights: three crater lakes, each holding a mystery that we had to see with our own eyes.

We set out for Keli Mutu after catching a few hours' sleep in the town of Moni, the most popular base for visiting the volcano. Our spartan room, like all the other accommodations in town, offered just a bed, a mosquito net and a sense of adventure.

Hours before dawn, we hopped on a truck that carried a dozen or so tourists each day from Moni through the chilly darkness toward the summit. After our ride, we stumbled for half an hour up a rocky trail in the moonlight, then sat bundled in blankets, drinking coffee sold by local entrepreneurs and waiting for the sun. The smell of sulfur swirled around us.

As the dawn broke, the first dim view appeared of three jagged craters filled with satiny water. Then the brightening sky slowly revealed the mystery. The lakes were unearthly colors, dazzling like a child's paint box: One glowed turquoise like a swimming pool, one was a deep olive green and the last was a dense black that seemed to swallow all light.

The vertical sides of the craters make it impossible to reach the lakes; people have died trying. Scientists speculate that the strange hues may be caused by minerals in the water. The color scheme has changed over time. Postcards in dusty souvenir shops show the lakes when they were ruby red, black and milky white.

At the Soa hot spring, outside the mountain town of Bajawa, we joined the Florinese at play. Extended families soaked and splashed in the big rocky pond, snacking on roasted bananas and ears of corn cooked over little palm-leaf fires.

Bajawa is cool and pleasant, but the real draw of the region is the dramatic thatched architecture of the indigenous Ngada people.

Travelers generally visit Bena village, with its two long rows of towering traditional houses lined up against a backdrop of volcanoes. Yanto led us instead to equally picturesque Luba, just down the road, where the people seemed surprised and pleased to have visitors from another world. Pak Markus, the village head, poured us aromatic home-grown coffee and happily answered our questions about their way of life.

Like many Florinese villages, Luba is a startling cultural synthesis. Dutch missionaries converted locals to Christianity in the 1920s but allowed the people to apply their native animist beliefs to create a hybrid faith of sorts.

Villagers decorate their Catholic churches with strings of buffalo skulls from the harvest sacrifices. Houses display ancestor dolls on the roof and pastel pictures of the Blessed Virgin on their walls.

The Trans-Flores Highway reaches its western end at Labuhanbajo, a fishing port that faces Komodo Island and its "dragons," and we said goodbye to Yanto.

Our simple room at the Hotel Wisata opened onto a pleasant tiled courtyard, and days somehow evaporated as we read paperbacks under an awning and occasionally strolled to the market for fruit.

"Labuhan," as locals call the town, is a transit crossroads. From there, you can catch a bus to Jakarta (with help from ferries), or cross to the islands of Sumbawa and Sumba on jam-packed boats. If you're truly fearless, sail for four days to Lombok Island on a decrepit fishing boat.

Or you may find yourself irresistibly drawn to the quiet, lazy beaches strung out north and south of the town, where days turn into weeks. Like most people who venture this far, you may well find yourself in no hurry at all to leave.



Riding the Trans-Flores Highway

Getting there: China, EVA, Malaysia, Singapore and Thai airlines fly from LAX to the Indonesian city of Denpasar on the island of Bali, with one change of planes. Restricted round-trip fares start at $1,100. Merpati airlines flies from Denpasar to Maumere on Flores Island. Merpati schedules and fares aren't published, and tickets must be bought in Bali. My fare was about $100 one way.

When to go: The dry season is April through September.

Getting around: Hiring a private car with driver and guide is best; book through a hotel. The price is negotiable; we paid $350 for a five-day trip, gas included.

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