Falling in love. It’s the fairytale ending to your travel story. You imagine yourself being swept off your feet in the middle of lush green rice fields. Falling in love with a beautiful stranger as the sun sets over a tropical white sand beach.
Or sometimes, love insists on butting into an otherwise perfectly civil adventure day. This is a story of what happens when you’re just trying to have a good time, and love keeps getting in the way.
Beginning in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo
The story starts back in November 2013, on the very first night of my very first backpacking trip. I’m sitting in a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. I’ve just arrived one hour before and I have no idea where I am. I am the freshest of fresh-faced backpackers.
As I start chatting with the other guests at the hostel, I meet a dutch couple on their last night of their trip. Ignoring all my questions about Borneo, they are ecstatically talking about one place: Flores, Indonesia.
I’ve never heard of Flores before but in that one conversation it moves to the top of my travel bucket list. I don’t even really know where it is, or why I want to go there, but I know I’m going to Flores.
Meanwhile on Flores
Fast forward four months, and I’m finally in Indonesia. I am, in my own mind at least, a hardened backpacker at this point. I know what a tuk-tuk is, I’ve had food poisoning twice, and I’m not afraid of rocking up to new towns with no reservations. I got this.
Since I’m not a scuba diver, Indonesia meant one thing to me: volcanoes. I was in Indonesia for one month and I was going to climb as many damn volcanoes as I could. No matter how many stunning beaches and cute boys I had to ignore along the way.
Flores was no exception. I spent a few days in Labuan Bajo (LBJ), took the tour of Rinca and Komodo to see the Komodo dragons, and spent a day lazing around town drinking Bintang. But after a few days in the oceanside town I knew I was wasting time. There were volcanoes to climb.
Laying around the hostel one morning, I started chatting with the owner about my goal to climb volcanoes, and he told me to head over to his hometown, Ruteng.
“No tourists go there. They will be so excited to see you! You must go! It’s a great mountain, very tall!”
The volcano he mentioned, Ranaka, is, in fact, not very tall, but let’s not get picky. At the time, I was super excited. Nothing gets a backpacker juiced like hearing “no tourists go there.” It’s like our cocaine. We love that shit.
Quick sidenote before we really get into the meat of this story: I just want to say, in advance, that most of the humor in this story is at the expense of another person. And I feel kinda bad about that. As in, I realize I should treat all humans with dignity and respect. So I feel bad for writing this. But not bad enough not to post it.
Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Moving on.
The Journey to Ruteng
Next morning I was on a bus, headed off into the mists, determined to climb that volcano.
By the time I arrived in Ruteng in the mid-afternoon, it was already pouring rain. I checked into one of the only guesthouses in town and sort of mulled around a bit, waiting for the rain to pass. I planned to do the hike the next day. I knew the name of the volcano, Ranaka, and I knew it was a bit outside of town but I had no idea how to get to it. I figured I’d just, maybe, hitchhike? Who knows.
Finally the rains passed and I went out to get some dinner. As I walk along the streets, looking for a masakan padang (traditional Indonesia restaurant) a young guy comes up to me and starts having a chat. He asked me where I’m going and I say I’m looking for some dinner.
Travel Pro Tip: Never turn down a local who offers to help you find food. Unless they are creepy AF.
He takes me to a nearby spot, we get some food. This guy, I honestly can’t remember his name so let’s just call him Andy, he starts telling me about himself. He’s an English teacher and a journalist. Not originally from Flores but he lives here now to report on the corruption in the local government. I’m intrigued. He strikes me as a cool dude.
Andy then asks me what I want to do tomorrow. I tell him I’m going to climb Ranaka, but I’ve got no idea where it is, or how to get there.
“Well, why don’t I go with you?”
Free guide? I am thrilled. This dude seems non-threatening, non-creepy, and I apparently have no self-preservation instinct. I say yes. We agree to meet tomorrow morning at 7am.
7am rolls around, and Andrew shows up at my hotel wearing jeans and dress shoes. Not a great omen but I willfully ignore it. We find some guys on motorcycles to drive us out to the base of the mountain.
Climbing Gunung Ranaka
Once we get there, it becomes clear that the “trail” to the top of the mountain is actually a paved road. So I definitely did not need the guide. But having a knowledgeable local is always a good thing, right?
“So, how many times have you climbed this mountain?” I ask.
“Never. This is my first time. It’s my first time on a volcano!”
Let’s be clear about the status of my hike at this point: I’ve got a useless guide, in dress shoes, who has never climbed the mountain before. Or any mountain, for that matter. But I’m optimistic. It could still be a good day.
The first part of the morning is great. We talk about random topics: travel, corruption, the differences between America and Indonesia. I ask a lot of questions about Indonesian culture and he patiently answers.
At some point we walk through a village and we inherit a cadre of children. They babble along, following us, and Andy tells me that “the kids are excited, they’ve never seen a white girl before, they’re all talking about you. They want to know if you are a girl, or a boy.”
Haha, very funny.
The kids follow us for a few kilometers, but at some point they disappear into the surrounding jungle to go cut down bamboo or harvest fruits. The Indonesian version of running errands for mom and dad.
We continue. The hike itself isn’t very long, 9km up to the top, 9km back down. It’s an out and back, not a loop, so there isn’t much chance of getting lost.
The Moment of Truth
Around kilometer 5 or 6, the conversation starts to get a bit strange.
“Is your country a Christian country?” Andy asks.
“Some people, not everyone.”
“Flores is a Christian Island.” Andy informs me, helpfully, before launching into his follow up question.
“Do people get divorced in your country?”
Me: “Yes, all the time.”
Andy: “Here people do not get divorced. Once we get married, we stay married.”
Me: “hmm, okay” I do not like the direction this conversation is taking.
Andy: “Can I tell you something?”
Me: No. “Yes…”
Andy: “I am in love with you. I think we should get married.”
Me: Nervous laughter.
I mean, seriously buddy? We’re halfway up a fucking mountain right now. We’ve gotta stick it out with each other for AT LEAST four more hours and this is your moment? Pretty fucking risky, if you ask me.
I try to give him a way out, because I’m a chivalrous young woman. I go for the laughing “no, you don’t mean that.” Blind to my attempts to dodge his marriage bullet, he persists,
“No, seriously, I love you. How does that make you feel?”
I give him one last chance to back the fuck up.
“You actually want to know what I think?”
And what comes next is, in my own humble opinion, one of my proudest moments in navigating the maddening world of unwanted male attention.
“I think I’m one of the first foreign white women you have spent time with. I think you find me beautiful because I look so different, so you’ve decided you are in love with me. But you are not in love with me. You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am or how I act, so you cannot possibly be in love with me.”
Yep. Nailed it.
Andy, poor guy, actually let out a sad little, “No, I’m really in love with you.”
And I had to shut this shit down, “Well, I am not in love with you. I just want to hike up this volcano.”
Needless to say, the rest of the way was pretty fucking awkward. And to put some icing on this shitstorm of a cake, a few minutes after this conversation it started to rain. Just a sprinkling at first but it was a steady sprinkling that persisted for at least the next hour.
Turns out Andy is pretty out of shape and spent the next 4 or 5 kilometers trying to convince me to turn around. It was cold. It was wet. He wanted to eat lunch (it was 10am).
I just wanted to climb a volcano in peace.
I tried to tell him he could just head back down, I’d see him at the bottom. He was having none of it.
To give the guy credit, he stuck it out with me all the way to the top, even managed to keep something of a conversation going. There isn’t really a view from the top of Ranaka, and anyway at that point we were surrounded by clouds.
Instead of views, the top of the mountain is lined with shrines to various saints, and a weird utilitarian building. We cowered inside this weird building for a few minutes, eating our Gado Gado for lunch.
Even up at the top, the poor guy was still trying to put his arm around me and give me some loving. I just wanted to bask in the silence that only comes at the tops of mountains. I did agree to take a picture with him.
Turns out the best views from Gunung Ranaka were at kilometer 6 or 7, but we were already fogged in by the rain and discussing my unwillingness to get married at that point.
After 20 minutes of reluctant snuggling, we headed back down the mountain. The rain seemed to be clearing up and I was looking forward to a swift jog back down the paved road to the bottom.
JUST KIDDING! 10 minutes into the walk down, it started pouring rain. I mean sheets of water were coming down. My shoes were soaked, my whole body was soaked. Mother nature laughed hysterically at my tiny north face rain jacket.
You can imagine how much my boy Andy loved this.
Only when we reached the bottom did I then realize we had no ride back into town. My local guide finally came through and he managed to hail a passing minivan. They let us hop in and gave us a ride back into town.
We parted ways in Ruteng, and I moved on to my next volcano the following day. We never spoke again. I may not have fallen in love with him, but at least I got a good story out of it.
Oh well, that’s unrequited love for you.
Gunung Ranaka is good for a short day hike though, if you’re into climbing volcanos or following random pilgrimage trails. 5/10. Don’t really recommend unless you’re bored.