A Bemo transport van in Labuan Bajo can be heard long before it arrives. A pounding mega base sub woofer reverberates through the tropical verges as the vans wind their way through the hills above the Labuan Bajo harbour. Here comes another Bemo Boy in his decorated van. The wait is never very long. Climb on board and watch your head as you duck in the open doorway.
I suspect the bemo boys are local heroes here in Labuan Bajo. They travel the four kilometre circuit around town all day, finishing at 6pm in the evening. After that time, it’s a long walk in the dark or a ride on the back of a motorbike. The passengers pile into the side bench seats in the rear of the van: local women with shopping from the market, slight young teenage schoolgirls, heads covered in snow white hijab and dressed in full length navy blue tunics neatly pressed, and then of course, us, the tourists.
Sometimes the volume is turned down when a middle-aged Muslim matron travels the route. It is quickly cranked up again as soon as she disembarks, to impress the teenagers hanging about on the corner or to serve as an announcement for potential passengers.
These young men have a wonderful time and decorate their vans with youthful kitsch. Stuffed multi coloured felt caterpillars line the dashboards, the rear window usually sports a large modern transfer, and lots of strange mirrors and other paraphernalia dangle from the rear vision mirror. The names of each bemo soon become familiar “Casanova“, “Playboy” and “Pleace be my baby“, to name a few. One bemo specialised in country music, complete with a little DVD screen, but we only scored this driver on one occasion.
For 5000 rupiah (under 50 cents) one way, we travel in style, down to the restaurant belt near the harbour and back to our guesthouse, located on the side of a steep hill. Beats walking in the heat!
It is odd how songs just pop into your head sometimes and then become permanently associated with a place.
Each evening, at around 5.30 PM, I start humming the tune ” Lipstick Sunset” by John Hiatt.
It’s a sad country song about leaving ( aren’t they all !) and as I fondly gaze at the gorgeous light show this evening, I feel sad to be leaving Labuan Bajo, her stunning sunsets and entrancing harbour, and her smiling but shy people with magic eyes.
There is a lively energy here in Flores. The locals belong to a distinctly different ethnic group, being much closer to Timor, and the sense of ‘Adat’ can be felt. The population at Labuan Bajo are either Catholic or Muslim, and there’s a small but growing Italian community in the “Little Italy” restaurant belt along the main street. The tourist industry centres around diving, with competing companies offering trips to the numerous islands of the Komodo archipelago as well as trekking opportunities to see the dragons on Rinca island. Komodo National park is a Unesco World heritage site and offers dramatic scenery for those who venture away from the main port. See my last post.
I probably won’t return , and if I did, I am sure it will have become a very different place. But, back to that haunting country song,
‘There’s a lipstick sunset
Smeared across the August sky
There’s a bitter sweet perfume
Hanging in the fields
The creek is running high
And I left my lover waiting
In the dawn somewhere to wonder why
By the end of the day
All her sweet dreams would fade
To a lipstick sunset “
John Hiatt 1987
To my brother Michael, who sings and plays this song better than anyone.
How do you describe the colours and patterns of tropical fish?
I had one day of glorious snorkeling experience in ideal conditions on Kanawa Island yesterday. Returning to the shady tree on the beach for a brief siesta in between forays, I attempted to explain to Madame H the colours below the water in this little stretch of paradise in the Komodo archipelago.
But let me back track a bit. Madame H does not really enjoy water activities and it was enough to get her onto the funky wooden boat that took us out from the harbour at Labuan Bajo. The sea was deep blue and calm. We pass a few magical pirate vessels in the harbour and later a group of islands, arriving at Kanawa after an hour or so. Madame H found a shady tree, a log of wood and stretched out her sarong, determined to finish the book about the whingeing widow.
Mr Tranquillo and I donned our masks and snorkels, and headed off into the crystal aqua waters off the beach. The coral is protected at Kanawa and provides immediate rewards for those who venture in. Schools of tiny blue and purple fish swarm over a small hill of coral, Angel fish glide by, a giant clam closes its blue and purple lips, Nimos play shyly as Mr T tries to coax them out from hiding. A pale pink fish with green stripes decides that I am the funniest thing he has ever seen: refusing to move, he continues to stare into mask. Black fish with white spotted tails, orange ones with beige/black designer stripes glide by in pairs, like Japanese origami. Schools of baby blue float about like confetti, a lone barracouta glides by, all pointy nosed and silvery.
I try to explain all this to the Madame reader. The words fail. I think about iridescence, or translucency. Purple and blue and orange. No, these colours are not right.
You just have to be there, under the sea in a far away place, with the heavenly fish off Labuan Bajo.