My vacation was ending in just a few days and I was heading to my last stop: a volcano named Kelimutu. I had wanted to see the three famous crater lakes that were reputed for their distinct, striking colours. It was 4PM and I was about fifty kilometres from my destination, a village named Moni at the base of the mountain. The route was windy and mountainous. Getting there before the 5.30PM sunset would be tricky.
I was in Indonesia on an island named Flores. The city of Ende is about seven hundred kilometres east of Bali and there I was one day in August many years ago. I had travelled so far East by means of boat, minibuses and cars. I had tried to book flights to Bali online the previous night and found the carriers’ websites to be useless. Ende was a city with an airport. More importantly, there were travel agents who could handle my onward flights.
It was Ramadan and everything was closed. Nevertheless, after some wandering, I found a travel agent who was open. A Frenchman in the queue ahead of me was having trouble: he had missed his 3PM flight. It was 2:45PM! The flight had left an hour ahead without him. In a manner that was quite representative of the Indonesian travel industry, I left the agent, bookings made, almost two hours after I had entered. Before I left, I asked the agent about my options for the day. She told me that the last bus to Moni had left by 2PM. I ought to find myself a hotel.
I walked out. A man on a scooter stopped before me and asked the question: “Where?”
He indicated to me to climb on.
He raised ten fingers.
“Ten thousand?” That wouldn’t make sense. Ten thousand rupiah was not even two dollars. A bargain even in Indonesia.
I took out my phone and typed ‘10000’ into it and showed it to him to verify.
He nodded again.
This was too good to be true. “How much time will it take?” I pointed to my watch.
He showed me three fingers.
“Three hours?” I considered. Ende was not worth staying one night in. I climbed onto the scooter, behind him. The tiny vehicle’s frame sank considerably on the combined weight of me and my backpack.
We drove a few hundred metres and arrived at what looked like a taxi-stand for scooters. The driver conversed hurriedly with his friends. I immediately picked up a bad vibe. I couldn’t understand Indonesian (or the local language of Flores that they may have been speaking) but their body language made it clear to me that they disapproved. Their shaking heads and mocking laughs indicated that they thought that he was crazy. Someone handed him a jacket which he put in a plastic bag in front.
We drove across the road into a petrol pump and filled up. The ‘ten thousand’ again caused me worry. The litre of petrol that he filled up cost five thousand five hundred rupiah. I did not see any margins for him. The travel agent had told me earlier that a regular shared taxi would cost me one hundred thousand.
Perhaps this man made his profits by delivering people to guest houses run by friends of his who would offer him a substantial cut of the rent. You’re not getting any rent off me. We have no such contract. I would walk to some other hotel and ask for a commission-free price. Service providers who come up with unspoken contracts vex me. The fact that I had to shell out a high price for my flights just a few minutes prior did not help.
We left. The scooter scooted to 90Km/hr immediately. That made me a bit nervous. I would not go at ninety on a road like the one that I was on even if I were in a car . The smooth, fast ride lasted three minutes at best. Then we were out of the city and moving along the windy mountain roads that scared me.
We took the curves at sixty. I remembered a phone call that I had made to my parents a few days prior. My parents had expressed concern when I told them that I had seen a shark while diving. I had said something about the statistical probability of danger – that it was far more likely that a person would die per time spent on the road than on a dive. Now I was on the road and feeling rather unsafe indeed.
We were going a lot more faster that I was comfortable with. Nevertheless I was not comfortable with telling a driver how to do his job. I watched the skilful way with which the man guided his scooter around the curves in the road and how he overtook. Aside from his absolute speed, he seemed cautious. He took no other foolish risks and ensured that there was adequate space when overtaking vehicles. He did not charge speedily into blind curves. The man knew what he was doing.
Take it as you would a roller coaster. You’re on vacation after all. I remembered my last rollercoaster ride. I had clung to the bars in terror, my eyes closed, as my friends screamed with delight. Roller coasters run on rails and there are seat belts on them. This roller coaster analogy was not working for me. You’re always up for something adventurous, aren’t you? I gritted my teeth.
We had ridden for about twenty five minutes. The air had gotten cold. We stopped and the man put on his jacket. I did likewise. I looked at the odometer. We had covered nineteen kilometres. The ride did not look like it would take three hours. The roads had become considerably narrower and in bad shape but we were still making good time. There was another reason I did not want to tell the man to slow down. Making it to Moni before sundown was a major contributor to safety – to an extent it would negate the risk of riding fast. As we continued, I watched the motion of the odometer dial with some satisfaction even as the scenery flying by caused me worry.
The man found something loose and started screwing it back on. Was that a screw on the clutch – or the brake? I got the chills. Then we ran over a big pothole and I felt my buttocks leave the seat and land back on it.
The man turned around, smiled and asked, “OK?”
“OK.” I smiled back with my best face and gave him a thumbs up. Of course I’m OK. Luiz can take one little pothole.
Something felt wrong with my jeans. My right jean-leg was sticking to my knee. A wound that was about a week old had reopened. Not a good time to be reminded of it. I had injured my knee from a scooter fall a week before. I was riding pillion, going at about 20Km/hr and had skidded on some loose sand on the road. So much for my concern regarding speed. The very next day I had come across another tourist with scrapes on her knees, palms and legs. She had also crashed a bike. She mentioned meeting other bike-crash-victim tourists at the clinic. Indonesia is filled with tourists injured from incidents involving the two-wheelers they were riding. At my right knee, my jeans were turning into an ugly brown colour.
Ende was situated on the coast. The views on the ride to Ende had been beautiful. Frothing waves rising out of bright blue waters had crashed onto the rocky shore. Palm trees had sheltered the road. Beyond Ende, the road curved up into the mountains. We had quickly lost sight of the sea. There were still plenty of trees. It was toward the end of the ride, with a view of the setting sun, that the views became beautiful again. Now and then I got to see great lengths of the serpentine road surrounded by vegetation or sheer drops on either sides. The next day would bring better views, if I made it.
I reflected again on the foolishness of my enterprise. Why had I chosen to take the scooter on a mountain road long after the last shared taxi had left? Had it been worth risking my life, knowing that I would have to go fast or risk travelling after sunset? Had it been the cheapness of the fare? What price had I put on my life? Had I just been so desperate to maximise my vacation-time that I would put myself in danger for it? Or was it an unthinking risk that, once begun, I had egoistically decided not to end because of the perceived embarrassment it would bring me?
At the one hour mark we had covered about forty five kilometres. The roads had improved considerably and concerns for my safety had slowly begun to vanish. We were going to make it before sundown too. Other things came back to my mind. Why did the man show ‘three’ when I asked him how long it would take? We were five minutes from Moni if I had the distance right.
And what about the money? Ten thousand rupiah made no sense. Had he given me a false number that he would change later? Was there really such a thing as a driver who earned solely on hotel commissions? Could it be possible that he had meant one hundred thousand? If he had, I would have stayed the night in Ende and taken a shared taxi in the morning. I had ensured that I would not be tricked to a ridiculous price by showing him the number on my phone. He had agreed to it.
We arrived at a beautiful village with the sun low in the sky. I got off the scooter and handed the man a ten thousand rupiah note. He gave me a bemused expression. Here it comes.
“You said ten thousand.” I punched the number into my phone and showed it to him.
“No”, said the man. He took out his own phone and punched in ‘100000’.
Did I mention that I had really had it with the Indonesian travel industry? If I had to make a judgment as to whether the driver was a fool who had made an honest mistake with one zero or a con man out to cheat tourists I would have gone with con man any day.
A local guest house owner came to intercede. The driver made a plea to him in their language. The new guy told me that ten thousand was ridiculous and that the cost to get to Moni was much higher. It was not something that I did not know. He told me that one hundred thousand was a fair price. I told him that I would have taken a cab the next day instead of putting my life at risk on a scooter up the mountain. Eventually I caved. I handed the man three more ten thousand rupiah notes. He refused to take it. I left them on his scooter and walked away.
I asked the local to show me his rooms. I would start at his place and then hunt around for a cheaper place. The driver followed us.
“Please, no hundred. Fifty. I happy.” He didn’t need the full hundred but would be glad to get at least fifty. He pleaded and smiled.
“No. I’m not giving you any more.”
I walked away from him to check out the next guest house. This ride had never really looked like it would have a happy ending, but I did survive.