Laid Back in Larantuka
The tiny capital seat of East Flores has much to offer: panoramic views, good eating, friendly people and a fascinating religious ritual that dates back centuries.
The man came running from the kitchen with a sheepish look on his face. "Our staff in the back thought seven of your ten kembung fish were the hotel's," he said to the guests, three men, all of whom were of bigger build than him. "So we've cooked them, and...errh, we've eaten them."
After half a beat filled with consternation two weeks ago, Father Marianus Welan of the Delsos organization in Larantuka, East Flores, regrouped and burst out in a guffaw. "My good man," he said with his inimitable grin, while pointedly looking towards the smoking barbecue pit already laid out with a half-cooked tray-sized Japanese carp and a garoupa the breadth of an opened-up Tempo magazine on the Hotel ASA grounds near the pool. "Here are quite a large group of my friends from Jakarta all expecting a sumptious dinner of 12 freshly grilled fish, and your hotel has eaten seven of them!"
The 21-room partly one-storey, partly two-storey Hotel ASA of Larantuka which even rents out a room on a boat if you're game to try it is, of course, no Ritz. But then again which Ritz in the world would allow guests to buy their own fish in the marketplace down the road and cheekily ask the hotel staff to grill the bounty for them?while also throwing in for good measure jars and jars of free delicious, still-warm jagung titi, the Flores version of homemade popcorn, for said guests to nibble on while waiting for their fish to cook.
Putting this as consideration, the groupcomprising officials from the National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers (BNP2TKI), the National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction, AusAid, Tifa Foundation which is part of the Open Society Foundations international network family, and Delsos an organizational offshoot from the local dioceseexpansively decided with great mirth that the man was forgiven, despite having letting himself and his colleagues eat what should have been a good portion of the guests' evening meal.
Larantuka is the tiny capital seat of Flores Timur District. Located on the eastern tip of the island of Flores, the town has an interesting history having been established by the Portuguese before 1600 as an interstation for the trade of aromatic Timorese sandalwood. The settlement soon became the Portuguese trading center of the southeastern part of the Dutch East Indies, affectionately known as NTB and NTT. It was used as the naval base for trade and a central point for colonization and clerical activities in Eastern Indonesia. It even provided a refuge for deserters from the Dutch East India Company which dominated most of the rest of the archipelago. Despite eventually selling the territories to the Dutch in 1859, the Portuguese influence and extensive activities of the Dominicans sees the region still around 85 percent Catholic to this day.
Portuguese influence is clearly visible if one comes in by boat from the main wharf area. You will see churches of classic European architecture lining the shore side of the esplanade providing an attractive view of the port and giving a wonderful first impression of the town.
Despite its long history since the Portuguese came to its shores and gave the island the name 'Cabo de Flores', meaning cape of flowers, and despite the former burden of being at the crossroads of free commerce and island trade for spices for centuries, and for presentlyironically, because it's so fertilebeing one of the poorest pockets in the whole country, Larantuka is definitely its smiling friendly people.
Father Welan, as well as the guilt-ridden hotel man admitting to his fish-grabbing, are excellent samples of this affability. One would not be far amiss about planning to visit this almost hidden secret of Indonesia, if only to make friends with some of the population.
But then again, one would not want to miss out on the forests. And the birds and flowers. Not to mention the quiet meditative beaches, with waves that lap so gently at your toes already half-buried in white, gold, sparkling black and even pink sand, you inevitably become loathe to move even though the sun at its zenith feels as if it has burned a hole into your head.
And the mountains. Flores is of course part of the Ring of Fire that makes Indonesia so lush. The islands that make up East Nusa Tenggara alone (in which last count there are some 566 islands) boasts 10 of those mountains.
If you're into fishing, this is one of the places where you wouldn't have to tell tall fishing tales of "the ones that got away, that were yay big." With practically no effort, it's as if the fish come to you. We saw two women casually strolling down the beach at sunset on Heding Beach facing the north, each carrying a bubu, the little bamboo contraption that's built with a way for fish to swim in and no way out, that Indonesian islanders have been using for millenia to catch their meals in. This was just 15 minutes before the two 'mama' planned to start preparing their family's evening fare. Beats sneaking off to the nearest convenience store to buy a quick can of sardines anytime.
Of the thousands of little towns and ports dotted around Indonesia, Larantuka must surely claim to have the most poetic of names. Moreover, this seaport with spectacular views is nestled at the base of the Ile Mandiri volcano from where Solor, Adonara and Lembata (more poetic-sounding islands) are visible across the narrow strait. Strung together, the names are a line of poetry in itself.
There is a harbor in town and another one a few kilometers away where the ferryboat leaves for Kupang and Rote in West Timor. The boats going to Alor leave from the one in town. There are a number of tuna boats at the docks. They have a big square platform on the bow where fishermen line up with bamboo poles flipping hooked tunas. If you're lucky, you can witness about six to eight water jets spraying a steady stream of water on the sea's surface to attract the tunas. Then baitfish are tossed in, driving the tunas into a feeding frenzy. These are not the big yellow or bluefin tunas, but the smaller ones about two feet in length. After, you can then see the catch laid out for sale by roadside vendors along the road from Maumere, for the price of Rp50,000 a fishand this before you haggle.
There are some New Orleans look-alike cemeteries along the beach on the way. They are well maintained and very colorful. On our last night here, after searching out a weaver creating fabulous ikat cloth in her backyard (the best way to purchase these wonderful souvenirs which start at Rp400,000 a piece), and ending up buying kilograms of organic cashews packed and ready for shipping to France (Rp110,000/kilogram), we found ourselves at the tail-end of a funeral procession heading for a night burial in the cemetery several kilometers before our hotel. It seemed like the whole town had turned out in front of their houses to see off the departed.
Larantuka is home to the Katedral Reinha Rosari. This cathedral, together with two chapels, Kapela Tua Ana and Kapela Tuan Ma, are centers of activity during the famous Larantuka Easter Procession. During that time, this laid-back backwater turns into a busy and lively place bursting with pilgrims from all over the world to solemnly celebrate Holy Week, known here as Semana Santa. This year the series of rituals were enacted the week of March 2731. The little town's commemoration of Holy Week uniquely blends Old Portuguese devotion rituals with local tradition. Pilgrims come to pray and also to participate in this one-of-a-kind procession.
The celebrations center on two religious icons, one is a statue of Jesus Christ and the other one of the Virgin Mary, brought over by Portuguese missionaries Gaspar do Esprito Santo and Agostinho de Madalena in the 16th century. These statues are only presented to the public every Easter and are kept out-of-view for the rest of the year.
The Semana Santa commences with the Rabu Trewa, or Ash Wednesday, in the middle of Easter Week. In the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, devotees enact the tikam turo ritual to prepare for the following day's seven-kilometer procession by posting candles all along the route. Afterwards, devotees attend the munda tuan ritual in which members of the religious fraternity Konfreria Reinha Rosaria (the Fraternity of the Queen of the Garland of Roses) bathe the statues of Jesus and Mary. The holy water used is saved to cure ailing children and to give to women suffering complications during childbirth.
The procession on Good Friday is the peak event. The religious organization was founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Over time (mainly in the period end of 17th through mid- 19th century), the Konfreria gained a lot of status. The members baptized the population, maintained the churches and took care of the holy relics. For some reason, Larantukans think Holy Week is the only reason people come to visit, without realizing there are others, too.
Debra H. Yatim