On the last day of a recent business trip to Kupang, in East Nusa Tenggara, I had some time to travel around the city before my afternoon flight back to Jakarta.
The night before I had arranged for Geby Djari, a local woman I met earlier in the trip, to pick me up in the morning so I could join her at the local fish market.
Geby, 31, runs a small business in Kupang selling ikan bakar , or grilled seafood. After living in Jakarta for more than 10 years, she returned home and is now a vendor at the famous Kampung Solor night market, where my travel group ate dinner one evening.
The Kampung Solor market occupies one of the city’s main streets, which looks completely different in the morning. At the night market, vendors sell incredibly fresh fish, crab and squid.
Locals suggest that you check the vendors’ prices before you decide to sit and order. The seafood in Kupang is generally of much higher quality than it is in most Jakarta restaurants, and it’s also a lot cheaper.
“We have a great selection of seafood, especially fish. The most popular thing here is red snapper, I think,” Geby said. “We locals eat fish every day, so we know what’s good and what isn’t. You can never fool us with fish that isn’t fresh.”
Located on the western tip of the island of Timor, Kupang is one of the province’s busiest cities. Its airport, El Tari, welcomes flights from other major cities in Indonesia as well as the neighboring countries of East Timor and Australia.
“Flights to Australia are around Rp 1 million [$110] from here,” Geby said.
The city is a melting pot where people from outside the province, mainly from Bali, Java and Sulawesi, have come to start businesses. It even has an area called Kampung Bugis, where Bugis people, one of Sulawesi’s main ethnic groups, have settled.
Beaches are also less than an hour away by car, and they become more beautiful the farther away you get from the city, Geby said.
“If only you had more time, my dad and I would take you on our boat to Pulau Kera. Although it’s not big, it is the most beautiful island, with white-sand beaches,” she said.
December is the best time to travel to Kupang for many reasons, she added. The temperature is more bearable then, usually about 35 degrees Celsius, which is below the year-round high of about 39 degrees. Because the weather is so nice, she said, sailing is also a breeze.
“That’s why fish are generally cheaper starting in September, because fishermen catch more thanks to the good weather,” she said.
At the fish market near Oeba, hundreds of vendors sell a wide variety of fish and other types of seafood that they purchase directly from fishermen. Every morning as early as 3 a.m., boats arrive at the small port near the market, bringing fishermen from Kupang, Ende, Sulawesi and elsewhere to deliver their catch.
“While local fishermen from Kupang go to the sea at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon and return the next morning, Bugis [fishermen] from Sulawesi spend weeks at sea and bring tons of fish. That’s why it can take up to three days to unload the boats,” Geby said.
When it comes to food, she added, Kupang’s specialities include seafood, se’i (smoked pork or beef) and bose (corn-based porridge).
“Pork se’i is especially popular here,” she said. “Tourists will look for it when they’re in Kupang.”
Indeed, in Kupang, pigs are just like dogs, walking freely in the streets, near the market and in the yards of local homes.
Although people from across Indonesia live in the city, Catholics and other Christians make up a majority of the population. Churches are easy to find and images of Jesus are everywhere, including on murals, on public transportation and on the outsides of homes.
“People are very religious here, so you won’t find any open shops on Sunday mornings because everyone goes to church,” Geby said. “Shops typically open at four in the afternoon on Sundays, but you can still go to the market.”
One of the most interesting sights in Kupang is the city’s notorious public transportation system of bemos . These minivans are decorated on all sides with large stickers, which usually include some words in English and sometimes don’t make sense.
The bemos were designed to attract attention, a fellow journalist from Kupang told me, and they have been dubbed “moving discotheques” because the drivers often blast disco and rap music.
“The local administrator has even issued a regulation capping the maximum volume of the music played in bemos,” the journalist said. “It’s annoying, but school kids won’t ride a bemo that doesn’t play loud music.
“A lot of young men from Kupang have failed the test to join the military because they have hearing problems. How can they not, when they’ve been abusing their ears since they were very young?”
In order to go deeper into the island of Timor, travelers can ride buses, which run frequently, Geby said. Some go as far as Atambua, the city closest to the border between Indonesia and East Timor.
Geby said it was her love of Kupang that brought her back home from Jakarta. “No matter how poor we are here, there is no place like Kupang in Indonesia.”