Culture / Flores / Indonesia / Peace Corps / People / Religion / Travel

5 Shots of Arak in Riung

I said before that Riung wasn’t what I expected. I still maintain that; yet, Riung has a special place in my heart and here’s why.

Riung, a small fishing village in the northeast side of Flores, is a two-warung town— which means it’s tiny. There’s also a small market, a BRI bank, a handful of tokos, or stores, and a few small hostels for the tourists that pass through. And of course there’s a church, and perhaps, a mosque, but I never encountered it.

As we arrived in Riung the day before Christmas Eve, we were somewhat prepared to spend Christmas there. Yet, upon seeing the town’s limited activity, we concluded that it would be best to spend Christmas on the road to Labuan Bajo. This proved to be impossible. Unlike Java, which is primarily Muslim, Flores is primarily Catholic. Christmas immobilized most of Christian Riung, making our three days there a little…complicated.

First, there was the incessant music. Our simple, but lovely homestay was located next to some sort of community building that was set for a celebration we never defined. This place controlled the massive speakers that blessed the entire town with their eclectic selection of high-voltage pop songs and techno Christmas carols. I cannot stress this enough, so I will write it again. TECHNO. CHRISTMAS. CAROLS. Every day. ALL. DAY. LONG. This music was such a constant presence, that we came to accept it as the ambience sounds of Riung. We missed it when it stopped. And Kayla knew all the lyrics.

Next, there was the food issue. As I said, Riung is a two-warung town, which is unusual considering Indonesia’s people to warung ratio is probably about 2 to 1- and Indonesia has a ton of people. Riung also had a couple restaurants tailoring to tourists, but due to Christmas, these were unfortunately closed. The two warungs were sometimes closed too, but more than that, their food was extremely mediocre. And so we starved. (I’m mostly kidding, but the situation was pretty grim. Made sadder still by the fact our families called sharing details of their delicious Christmas dinners.)

To deal with our food issue, we scavenged the tokos to find anything that could contribute to at least one decent meal on Christmas Day. This included eggs, some biscuit-like bread, flour, a can of chocolate condensed milk, honey, oil and did I mention eggs? Though it doesn’t sound like much, it was still very ambitious considering we had no kitchen and nothing to actually cook with, but I will come back to that.

A dog Ellen befriended in Riung. His name was Bingo. I thought he looked more like a Tigger…so I called him that.

On our way to Seventeen Islands Marine Park, which surrounds Riung.

Tigger wanted to come with us, too.

On Christmas Eve day, we explored the islands surrounding the town. After that, 5 out of the 6 people in our crew decided it would be a nice experience to go to church that evening. Some of us were beginning to feel the weight of homesickness, missing the Christmas celebrations we would be participating in at home. I had been curious about attending a Catholic church in Indonesia for some time, but since I consider “going to church” a family activity, it was never that appealing until I had people to go with.

That evening, we all dressed up in our traveling best, followed rough directions through unlit roads and reached a glowing yellow structure steadily filling up with most of the town’s population. We got there late, but in Indonesia that means early, so we were able to sit in the thin wooden benches next to beautifully dressed Flores families. Surprisingly, 5 foreigners in the church didn’t cause the commotion I had anticipated, which made me feel really comfortable and almost, at home. If only the language and music had been in Spanish, it would’ve been exactly like being in Ecuador.

The Catholic Church in Riung filled with people.

The left section of the choir led by a nun.

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As the mass began, the church rang with beautiful singing. This church’s choir was organized and actually talented, coordinating melodies and harmonies between two choral sections on either side of the altar. Together, they sang the usual Christmas carols translated into Bahasa Indonesia and a rendition of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Whether American, Indonesian or Ecuadorian—Catholic or not—we all knew the familiar Latin lyrics and sang along. The music brought everyone together, producing in me an elate moment of transcending cultural barriers, joy and just love for the entire world. It was then clearer to me than ever how culturally Catholic I am, and I relished in the comforting thought that home could be found almost anywhere in the world, even if just for a moment.

After this lovely mass, my happy mood continued and I insisted that the best plan to deal with the food crisis was to stay up all night and sleep all Christmas day, thus avoiding hunger. I think I was the only one that believed that logic, but either way, the Flores Crew was game. The only challenge was actually finding things to do. So we started with the usual joking, talking and word games, until finally, we got hungry.

We debated whether we should ask the homestay owners—who lived in a small bamboo house next door—if we could use their kitchen. It was late at night and in my Western mind, I didn’t want to bother anyone, but in the end, Tim and I gathered the courage to ask. The homestay’s humble owners graciously received us into their modest kitchen, actually cooking our eggs for us and giving us additional kue, or snacks, to enjoy. In the middle of all this, one of the family members invited Tim and me to drink arak, the local Flores moonshine, and since there was little else to do, we agreed.

A couple hours later, after feasting on hard-boiled eggs and bread, Pak Rifan came over with a Jim Beam bottle filled with arak and a tray with several glasses. We sat in a circle with our new friend, toasting to life, Riung, Tamari Beach Homestay, friendship and Flores, which amounted to 5 shots for each of the 7 people that killed the bottle.

After this, we ventured over to the source of the blasting music—located only a few steps away— to put an end to the mystery of why it wouldn’t stop. (Not that we solved it.) Upon arrival, we discovered a few locals smoking and sitting around the stereo system “dj-ing.” The well-lit open pendopo-like structure was set up with a neon cross, Christmas trees, and rows and rows of chairs in a grassy muddy area. As we walked closer, they began playing “Gangnam Style” and pressured us on to get on what appeared to be an improvised-church-turned-dance-floor. For quite some time, it was just the five of us dancing around, until several local men joined in, teaching us some popular Indonesian dances. Not much later, Ellen—who had been sleeping through all this—found her way to us, deducing our location based on the clues we had left behind: an empty bottle, scattered glasses and a trail of eggshells. And this impromptu Christmas party raged on for a few hours, with at least 6 more plays of “Gangnam Style” and an arrangement of about 5 other songs on repeat.

When we had our fill of ridiculous dancing, we made our way back to the homestay where we picked up where we left off. The night continued with silly games and chatter, until half of us took a walk, under a black-starry sky in search of the beach. This we never found, but instead, we laid down on the road watching for falling stars, feeling gravity, and talking until the sun came up.

Later that day, it was Christmas morning and after precisely two hours of sleep, I arose to endure the hottest day of the entire Flores trip. We made our way into our friendly neighbor’s kitchen and whipped up the most satisfactory breakfast with our limited supplies.

Our Christmas breakfast in Riung. Lesson learned: You can make pancakes with chocolate milk.

Our Christmas breakfast in Riung. Lesson learned: You can make pancakes with chocolate milk.

The rest of the day wore on as we laid on the cool tile floor, fighting the heat and mosquitos, singing along to 90’s songs we dug up from the depths of my iPod—and the techno Christmas songs played on.

* for more logistical details about traveling to Flores check out this blog post.

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2 thoughts on “5 Shots of Arak in Riung

  1. Pingback: 8 Hundred Thousand Flying Foxes in Riung « in the land of dragons

  2. Pingback: 1 Snowman Made in the Sand « in the land of dragons

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