As the propeller plane flew over the eastern part of the island of Sumbawa – Flores’ big neighbor to the west – Mount Sangeang Api emerged from the Flores Sea, puffing grey smoke from its lava dome. Two weeks earlier the volcano erupted and spewed volcanic ash to the sky which then traveled eastward, forcing the closure of the Komodo National Park in the western fringes of Flores and canceling flights to and from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Minutes later the plane made its last sharp turn towards Maumere with the view of rugged mountain ridges hugging the blue Maumere Gulf, while the towering hills and mountains of Pulau Besar – literally ‘big island’ – across the gulf slowly disappeared from sight. The airport was small and later we learned from our local guide and driver that our flight was the last one arriving to Maumere that day. It was only 4 pm.
With 75,000 residents Maumere was the biggest town on Flores. However despite its meager size compared to the towns in Java, the residents proudly boasted Pope John Paul II’s visit to Maumere in 1992 – the smallest town ever visited by a pope, purportedly. Not surprisingly the majority of Florenese are Roman Catholics, a remnant from the long Portuguese rule on the island from the 16th century until 1854 when the Dutch effectively took control of Flores. But it was only five years later that Lisbon officially ceded the island to the Dutch when the Treaty of Lisbon was signed by both governments.
It was José Joaquim Lopes Lima, the governor of Flores and Timor who sold the island to the Dutch along with other smaller islands amidst financial difficulties his administration grappled with, an act he did without the consent of Lisbon. The Dutch, in return, ceded their control of Maubara, Ambeno and the island of Atauro to the Portuguese – a small exchange from the Dutch side compared to what they obtained.
After driving us from the airport to our beachfront hotel, past beautiful old Portuguese churches, Dino Lopez, our resourceful guide and driver, suggested us to have grilled fish for dinner.
“I’ve already fallen in love with Flores,” James spontaneously expressed his feeling to us.
“Slowly,” Dino said and chuckled.
Back in 2012 images of Flores, an island in the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, first caught my attention. Contrary to what most people thought of it as a deserted far-flung corner of Indonesia, covered in anything but endless arid steppes, the images confirmed otherwise. A friend introduced me to his uncle, a native Florenese, over Facebook to whom I asked about the island’s most recommended places to visit. However it took another two years for me to finally make the trip.
Over the next seven days Flores constantly amazed and enthralled us in so many ways. For an island with only 2 million inhabitants who speak five different languages with more than 60 dialects, whose fertile soils where almost everything can grow – from coffee, orange, cocoa, macadamia, cashew, vanilla to clove – are a gift from the island’s 14 active volcanoes, where rice is grown at terraces more majestic and breathtaking than the ones in Bali and tastes better than those grown in Java, where the whimsical nature of the ever-changing colors of the three mountain lakes of Kelimutu is complemented by the strange natural phenomenon of beaches littered with blue pebbles near Ende, Flores is truly one magical place among the endless chain of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
In the following weeks join me in a journey through words and images covering everything from the historical village of Sikka Natar, the unique natural phenomenon of Kelimutu, the eclectic traditional villages of Wogo and Bena, the vast expanse of Manggarai rice terraces, the fast-changing fishing village of Labuan Bajo, to the islands of Komodo and Rinca where the notorious Komodo dragons roamed freely surrounded by seas endowed with underwater wonders. Flores has wildly and genuinely exceeded our expectations.