2016
07.31
RAFLESIA IN BLOOM CURLING UP FOR THE NIGHT

RAFLESIA IN BLOOM CURLING UP FOR THE NIGHT

SYNOPSIS:  About an excursion West of Bukittingi, picking up a new guide and making two new friends.  About paragliding at Lake Maninjau almost.  About Dutch houses, silversmithing, and  about a world-guinness record experience.

I had put the deposit down, I was ready to go.  Yumat showed up right on time and turned out to be a two-step-up guide from Billy.  He is a licensed and experienced paraglider with his own business and many years of experience as a senior guide. I was about to check off one thing on my life’s bucket list:  paragliding.  Really, I wanted to try parachuting someday, but the opportunity of paragliding fell into my lap last night at the De Kock Cafe and I thought it might be a good first step easing into any sky adventures.

If you are ever thinking about paragliding and are in the area, here is Yumat’s contact information:  Joe Mairi, Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, Indonesia

Website www.sumatra-paragliding.id.or.id   Mobile : +62 812 673 81 52 Email joe_king76@yahoo.com & joecking@hotmail.com  

But… the weather did not look promising.  Yumat suggested a day tour circling around the area near take off and checking the weather as we went.  If the weather would clear up, we would take off.  If it did not — safety first — we would just do the tour.  Sounded better than nothing and so we were off.

The landscape around here is topped only by the scenery I have seen in Tana Toraja, but it really comes close:  rice fields and terraces, valleys, mountains, view points.  This area of West Sumatra is nothing short of stunning.

Not far from Bukittingi the unique village of Koto Gadang sits atop a mountain plateau.  Even if you don’t know anything about Dutch Colonialism, the houses in this village look like little Holland (except for the notorious rusty metal roofs).  Window shutters, truncated gables, wood carvings and the use of single colors speak of Dutch influence.  Indeed, the Dutch had trained the locals particularly in silver smithing, a craft that is still practiced today.  The villagers will not allow any outsiders (that means anyone not somehow related to a seed family of this village) to move in.  To this day, they guard their craft and pass it on to the next generation. 

Some women were introduced to the art of Kloeppeln / Bobbin, a unique Dutch form of lace making.  I watched one of the women moving around about 10 wooden sticks at lightning speed to create an intricate lace design.  In Holland, these things are used as little table decorations (doilies) or fancy handkerchiefs.  Here, they are more commonly stitched onto a piece of fabric and sold at high prices to be worn at special occasions. 

We passed sugar cane plantations, which provided income to entire villages that developed sugar producing home industries.  But the buffalos tied to wooden poles, who go around in circles crushing the cane all day, were resting.   And the people who strip the cane in preparation for processing were at lunch.  I would have enjoyed watching this operation.

We passed cashew nut trees and sure enough along the way you could observe people roasting peanuts and selling them right out of the hot pots.

Bukittingi is already high up in the mountains, but we wound our way up even higher.

At one turn we reached the top and without warning suddenly looked down at the huge Crater Lake Maninjau.  Despite the fact that the clouds were hanging low and there was no chance of paragliding; just looking at this lake was worth the entire trip.  It was spectacular!  None of my single photos turned out to capture its visual impact.  The richly turquoise blue of the water  hemmed by the dark mountains on three sides and gently hugged by a patchwork of fields of various greens and yellows, and villages with dots of red and white on the fourth side, seemed to be taken right out of a fairy tale.

As paragliding was out of the question, we soon started our descent by car, down to the lake shore  for a lunch break.  44 actually marked, sharply angled curves zigzag down the steep road to the bottom of the valley.  The lake down there is not nearly as spectacular as the view from the top, but we stopped at a pleasant restaurant/guesthouse The Bagues Cafe, for a good meal and a tranquil view.  Perhaps, some people swim in this lake, I most likely would not.  Being spoiled by the pristine lakes in Michigan, a lake mainly used for fish farming by the locals is not that appealing; not to mention the various forms of sewage disposal common around here…  Both leave too much of a question mark.  But with a shower nearby, one could probably chance swimming in it. 

A Swiss couple had just finished lunch and was looking for a ride back to Bukittingi.  And so we picked up Chilli and Roman for the ride back.  All three of us had heard about the Bunga Raflesia, a unique flower in this area — botanists come from all over to witness its short-lived bloom (4-9 days) if they can catch it.  5-7 blooms occur on average over the course of an entire year.  For us to be here  on day 6 of a reported bloom, was a rare chance to see the flower, considered the largest flower blooming in the world!   

Would Yumat take us there?

He added 2.5 hours to his day and indeed, took us to a village where you have to hire a local guide for a 30-50 minute jungle trek.  It was late in the day.  That is bad on two accounts.  One  you want to be out of the jungle before dark; we likely would make that just in time.  Two  the flower opens up to its maximum size mid-day and likely would be on its way to closing down for the night.  Oh well.  Better see the flower a bit smaller than not seeing it at all. 

Across muddy puddles, over broken trees and up and down very slippery slopes we made it, holding on to lianas, tree trunks and each other in support.  We passed a few tiny black knots which our guide pointed out to be future blooms.  If I got him right, it takes 1.5 years for a flower to reach full maturity to bloom.  The more rain, the bigger the flower.  This is dry season and despite all the rain, any flower that blooms during this time of the year will only bloom at about 1/2 to 2/3 of the size that flowers will reach during the wet season.  To increase the size of this last one (and by extension most likely the size of his income), our guide admitted to watering it daily for several weeks.  It was about 50 cm in diameter, down from the about 70 it reached during midday.  Some of these “flower dishes” make it to over one meter in diameter.  Truly amazing! 

So, two uniquely Indonesian natural phenomena can be crossed off on this trip:  The Komodo Dragons and the  Raflesia Flower.  Not bad.

2016
07.30
FAMILY HOME

FAMILY HOME

SYNOPSIS:  Driving around rain or shine to find traditional Minang architecture with Billy, my local guide.  The story of a palace and a glimpse of a big crater lake.  About living standards, rain, the countryside and a magic stone.

Soon the few original wooden Minang houses that are left will merely be good enough for firewood.  Their fate  does not lag far behind the fate of the Dayak Longhouses that I tried to visit in Kalimantan.  Traditional Minang architecture is characterized by two, four, or six upswung gables on either side of a central door, which also often is topped by a gable swinging for- and upwards. Occasionally, such a house is accompanied by rice barns similar to the Tana Toraja rice barns .  Ancient Minang mythology knows about a bullfight in which the future Minangkabau (translated as “the buffalo wins”) tricked their opponents by outfitting a buffalo calf with sharp blades, and having it compete against a huge female bull whose guts were shredded by the calf looking for milk…  Following this rather uneven battle, these gables are believed to resemble buffalo horns.

You see quite a few single abandoned and collapsed examples of these ancient homes as you drive through the countryside around Bukattingi.  Only in Belimbing are a notable number of them left, but except for about two of them, most are in various states of decay if they have not already crumbled completely.  The older examples, up to 300 years old, are made without nails by joining wood in the mortise and tenon fashion.

Two upswings would make a very modest home.  Four gables (two in each direction) seems to be the standard middle-class variation, whereas six gables (three in each direction) are reserved for palace architecture and village meeting halls or Rumah Adat

Traditionally, the grass of certain palm trees was used for the roofs; today the unfortunate rusty, corrugated metal roof is most common.  Traditionally, the entire house would be clad in carved and brightly painted wooden panels.  Today, the walls are more likely rather plain — the backside of the house always a step down in its decor.  What is neat to see is that government buildings, hospitals, schools, other public buildings, and even mosques reference these gables in honor of the local tradition. 

The inside of these houses has a row of semi-private bedrooms at the back that takes up about 1/3 of the space whereas 2/3 are open areas devoted to communal life.  An open kitchen-hearth is set up as part of that communal space.  The upstairs, if there is one, gets progressively smaller as it retreats into the gables.  Potentially, there could be a single third floor room inside the gable projecting forward.

A fancy computer screen at Pagaruyung Palace in Batusangkar promised local and palace history, explanations of Minang culture and other useful things in English and Bahasa, but no matter how much I tried, it could not be retrieved.  Billy, even though he produced a license that claimed that he was trained as a local guide, was of no use when it came to reliable information of any sort.  He was a good driver and certainly knew the area, but had not the first idea of any historical facts.  His English was not sufficient to translate more complex concepts either.  But I got this much:  As late as 2007, the former royal palace of the Minang was struck by lightning.  A lightning rod was not grounded properly and the thatched roofed palace burst into flames, burning down in front of the villagers in no time.  But government money allowed them to rebuild within a year from the disaster.  Today, the palace ranks among one of the most popular tourist attractions that we visited today.

Nearby there were a royal cemetery and a spot with various ancient stone slabs inscribed with decrees in Sanskrit and other ancient languages.  Once again, Billy was of no help in understanding what they meant and I have to admit that unless I will need any of this someday, most likely I won’t take the time to find out either.   

It was an uneventful but enjoyable day driving around the countryside, which is full of lush rice fields, vegetable gardens, fish ponds, banana plantations, and forests. 

Once again it proves to be true:  Where there is water, there are opportunities that lead to prosperity, even wealth.   Coming from areas such as Timur and Sumba, the general degree of living standard is notably higher here than there. Houses in this area are built more sturdy and decorated more elaborately than elsewhere, even garishly and kitschy at times, showing off that degree of prosperity. 

Billy insisted on making a detour to a notorious “Magic Stone” known as  Batu Angkek Angkek.  Once before in Iran, I had encountered such a “magic stone”.  It appears to be too heavy to be lifted by even a strongman.  But then, a heartfelt and sincere prayer to your god (may that be the Christian or the Muslim god, perhaps even the Jewish god) will solicit his help and magically, the person trying to lift the stone again is able to do so.  I did not try.  Perhaps, I should have to test my theory.  I believe that it is not the prayer, but a different technique that allows people to lift that stone the second time.  The first impulse is to the lift the stone vertically.  The second attempt almost without fail — I observed four different people — makes people slide the stone up their legs rather than  attempting to truly lift it.  And voila!  It ends up in your lap, “proof” of the power of god.

Well, the people in whose house that stone is kept certainly have figured out how to make a living as the final step of this ritual involves to make a donation to seal a wish you might have conveyed to your god.  What a scam.  But people seem to go for this stuff and they sincerely tried and “succeeded”. 

Our way back took us via Lake Singkarak, one of two crater lakes in the area.  A lake of this size in a setting as beautiful as this mountain area would in the West certainly draw people who would line its shores with vacation homes and dot its surface with sailboats and other vessels.  Here, there is nothing but the lonely fishing boat or the rare boat for rent just in case some crazy tourists feel like gondeling around on the lake. 

It was raining on and off all day.  I don’t know how many times Billy and I had to stop and either put on or take off our rain coats.  Here, as everywhere else I have been over the last two months, the dry season is not as dry as it should be, affecting age-old patterns of agriculture.  Perhaps it is the result of climate change, or perhaps only the effect of El Ninjo as some people hope.

A slow-paced day came to an end.  For some food I trekked into town to the famous De Kock Cafe.  It not only carries the typical local spicy food, it is also used to catering to the whims of the once so plentiful Western tourists.  They have pizza and baked potatoes on the menu, to mention just a few things.  You have no idea how good a bland baked potato with some egg and spinach can taste! 

Bon Appetit!

2016
07.29
A GOOFY MOMENT

A GOOFY MOMENT

SYNOPSIS:  About being a guest of honor at a traditional Minang Wedding and about crossing the equator. 

Colorful cloth tents were dotting the landscape when I drove from Padang to Bukittingi — the sure signs of impending weddings.  The Minang are a matrilineal culture and weddings as well as marriage traditions are some of the most emblematic expressions that remain.  It was a weekend in the month following Ramadan.  That is holiday season for all Muslims, and wedding season for the Minang.  I was pretty sure that by just walking through town the next day, I would stumble on a wedding somewhere and would be able to take a few pictures.  But it came even better than that.

It was already dark last night when I had found the Minang Hotel.  Should I move in the dark?  Should I just get through one night at that horrible place where my luggage was now, at the other end of town?  I was debating just those questions when the familiar “Hello Miss” tuned in from across the street.  I nodded and smiled as I usually do, and continued walking.  “Wait!”  A young man tried to cross the road fast enough for me to not get away.  This was clearly going beyond the “Hello Miss” part of the conversation.

It was Billy — why they all have these ridiculous Western names is beyond me, but Billy was actually written on his business card which he promptly produced.  Could he do anything for me?  Well, just when I needed to make a decision on my whereabouts for the night, somebody with a motorbike popped up who spoke some English!  I guess, my question was decided.  I explained my situation and asked him if he would first take me back to my original homestay, transport me, my camera and computer bags back to the Minang Hotel, and then return by himself to fetch my suitcase?  Of course, he would.  We negotiated a price and did just that.

I know you are shaking your head or are rolling your eyes, or even both, as this would be impossible in the US.  Ask a stranger you have met 3 minutes earlier, in a town you are not familiar with, and in the dark to pick up your suitcase — which, by the way contains things this guy will never have — and be certain that it will arrive intact, untouched and for sure.  In the States the guy’s card would be fake and this would be his age-old trick to rip off people; right?  Here, Billy did exactly what we agreed on and I did not even doubt it for one second!

Could he do anything else, he asked after pocketing his money?  Work around here is scarce, especially for young people.  I knew that and had already planned on contributing to the local economy by hiring somebody here or there.  Why not ask Billy to drive me around tomorrow to find a wedding?   When I expressed my plans to attend a local wedding, his eyes lit up.  His divorced father’s second wife’s youngest brother was getting married tomorrow in a village just one hour from here.  We could attend that wedding. 

Wow, I had not expected to be at a second-wife’s youngest brother’s marriage somewhere, just at any marriage in town.  But why not?

The “hour” Billy had announced clocked in at three hours on my watch, but after that we arrived in the village of Lubuk Sikaping.  The village may only be 60 or 80 km from Bukittingi as the crow flies, but this is serious mountain area.  A road of 1000 curves took us there which alternately hugged the mountain cliffs or snaked around the deep valleys in between.  Take your hand, spread out your fingers and imagine a road leading you from your thumb to your little finger, except that you have about 500 little fingers. That’s the road we were on for three hours leaning left and leaning right and left again and right again…  I won’t describe any of the passing maneuvers that were part of it but leave them to your imagination.  I am just glad we got there in one piece and without me getting road sick. 

A small fabric door in a side street indicated that we had arrived at our destination.  It was the entrance to a cloth tent that had been erected in the corridor between two small houses.   Except for a few people tending a food buffet, it was empty!  Where were all of the 300 guests who Billy told me would attend? 

To put the punchline first:  Minang weddings are the most arduous, boring, trying day for any newlyweds!  Having just attended one of the most fun and spirited weddings in the US, this became obvious within minutes.   It is nothing like any wedding we know.

The newlyweds were decked up in colorful, heavy, embroidered costumes — way too thick and uncomfortable for the hot weather — and seated on a “throne” under an equally colorful canopy at the end of the tent.  About twelve tables with four chairs each were set up for dining.  I was told that first, I had to eat before I could greet the couple.  I found that rude, but did as I was told.  They watched me from afar.  The food in this region is way too spicy for my taste, so I only nibbled on the various meat and vegetable dishes, all spiced up with loads of chili peppers.  Two bottles of water and loads of plain rice helped me to get through it without losing face. 

After eating, I was directed to the guest book and the gift table and a box for monetary donations.  With a golden pen, I put my name and place of origin in the book.  Billy told me that I would become the envy of the rest of the family who could not show up for a guest from America.  Since I had come with him (a family member), I would be claimed as a part of the extended family.  It was almost the same concept I had encountered at the funerals in Tana Toraja.  Complete strangers are more than welcome as anyone attending — the more the better — is testimony of the importance of the deceased, in this case the newly-weds.

After my entry in the book, it was time to greet the couple.  We made a bit of small talk and then it was picture-taking time.  And that, as I found out, is what this entire day is about:  Taking pictures with all the various guests.  The couple literally sits there the entire day posing with and for all of the attending guests.  Since I spent about two hours at the wedding, I saw other guests coming and going.  They eat, put their donations down, have their picture taken and leave…  The poor couple is stuck at their throne with zero air flow due to the fabric surrounding them.  I could not get out of the tent into the open air fast enough! 

The pride and joy for the couple for the rest of their wedded life will be the wedding photo book showing them with this or that relative and this or that friend and this or that group of people, or this or that famous guest in attendance.  That’s what wedding books look like. I know, as Billy later showed me his.

As a guest of the family, I was presented to everyone behind the scene.  There were the dozens of women cooking for the wedding at the back of the house; no such thing as “catering”.  There were the girls of honor, dressed in coordinated clothes who greeted and oriented the newcomers.  They were delighted to show me around all the way to the rice fields behind the house.  Despite their ability to move into the open air between guests, they were hot, too, their makeup running down in streaks. 

In the olden days, a wedding couple in their heavy clothes — particularly for the bride with her heavy crown this poses a challenge — had to make the rounds through the village to visually announce to all and everyone their new union.  These days, the village often comes to them.  But the highlight of the party is when around midday or early afternoon, the family of the bride arrives.  The couple gets up — their only chance all day for moving around — to greet the arriving family and to form a parade.  With pomp and ceremony, and with some specific traditional tunes played at that moment, they arrive at the tent.  In the olden days, and for the wealthier even today, the wedding would be accompanied by live music. For this wedding, there was canned music, a guy with an electric piano and a singer.  After the arrival of the bride’s family, there might be some dancing.  But the couple sits.

After two hours observing this wedding, and after the parade, I had enough.  Taking a slight detour on the way home, we passed through Bonjol, a village through which the equator cuts.  This would be my second time crossing the equator.  🙂  I vaguely remember having had the honor once in Peru. 

The road of 1000 curves took us back.  It was a long, hot day!  I was exhausted.  I can’t even imagine how the couple made it through.  In all likelihood they were still sitting there — or had they collapsed by now? —  by the time I was falling into bed. 

Good night.

2016
07.28
MINANG INTERNATIONAL HOTEL

MINANG INTERNATIONAL HOTEL

SYNOPSIS:  About the pulse of this charming mountain town, about Japanese Tunnels,  about my new accommodations and a word about the culture of Islam and what that means for Indonesia.

Gone-by wealth was oozing out of every one of the ornately carved wooden panels in the parlor of the Minang International Hotel.  It was underscored by the worn carpets, the dated upholstery on the two dozen arm chairs, the fancy wedding alcove, and the silver trays on which tea was still served — all of which must have cost a fortune in the 1950’s when this traditional villa was built and furnished.  The villa tops a hill overlooking a gorge — a beauty spot formed by a volcanic eruption, which now serves as a public park.   

The framed portrait of the patriarch of the family was prominently displayed.  He is one of the early settlers of West Sumatra in the 1920’s and the founder of a bank —  It spoke of pride and success.  The daughter of the patriarch is the new patriarch and the grandmother of the house, living with two of her daughters and various grandchildren in three+ rooms on the main floor.  There is still enough wealth in the family to have two young men on staff, who clean, do yard work, and alternately mind the place. 

What made them call this a hotel and an international one on top of it is anyone’s guess.  There is nothing international here — there are no international guests (except me and I seem to be a big novelty) and nothing hotel-like.  Not a lick of English is spoken by the entire staff, which beyond the two young men really is the extended family of this estate.  It must be a no-star hotel.   I did not find it in any of the guidebooks I looked in.  I just found it walking by the first night.

This is a homestay of the most genuine kind with the three generations of the family living downstairs.  The five rooms upstairs have been converted into guest rooms but have kept their homey flair.  I have a spacious one with a closet, a desk, a table, two  armchairs and a wraparound balcony.  And still, there is room.  My pink tiled bathroom, though constantly smelling like cow manure — even sports a bathtub.  But I am not getting too excited as there is no warm water in the house…  In this cool if not outright cold climate this is a definite loss.  But the homey feel of the place, its location, and the balcony won me over.  Nothing is perfect and I will take this over any of the fancy, nondescript hotels which abound in town.

The Minang is three steps up from the homestay I had originally picked from the Lonely Planet.  In order not to ruin its reputation it will remain unnamed.  But for my last week in Indonesia, I wanted a place I could settle in, work in peace, spread out a bit, and feel comfortable.  The Minang turned out to be even better than anticipated.  I have been the only guest for almost a week.  When I moved in, the rooms were filled with Indonesian visitors.  All of them left last Sunday when school (and work) started again.  It has been quiet here.  I enjoy my view of the park, my balcony, and the use of the entire upstairs parlor.  There is even wifi here! 

The park is a landmark in town and  frequented by just about anyone who will visit Bukittingi as it contains one of three notorious Japanese Tunnels in Indonesia, built with slave labor at the end of WWII.  The tunnels add up to over 6 km.  About 1.5 km are open to the public.  Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were living down there, preparing for a possible end through an atom bomb…  Each of these three tunnels was built with imported labor; this one by Javanese and Balinese as the laborers would not be able to communicate with the local population.  An unknown number of them died during construction. 

Today, the park is also home to dozens of monkeys who at times seem bored over there and come to visit my front yard looking for scraps.  But they won’t find much, as the young men of the Minang sweep (yes, with a straw broom) the entire yard every morning, picking up every single leaf that might have fallen overnight.

To the center of town it is only a short 5-10 minute walk.  That’s where all the action is:  the trendy cafes, the restaurants, antique shops, the tour operators, the markets, the zoo, the museum, the remains of a Dutch fortress and the performance space for the preservation of local Minang music and dance (more on all of those in future blogs).  Bukittingi obviously is a favorite vacation spot for the locals and once also was popular with Western tourists.  The Lonely Planet mentioned that the ebb of foreign tourists dried up a few years ago, but did not give a reason.  I wonder if the 30-day visa restrictions are part of it.  Sumatra cannot compete with Bali and other famous places in Java, but for me, it was an ideal spot to finish my trip as it was cooler than anywhere else and yet another minority lives here.

Bukittingi is located in the heart of the matriarchal Minangkabau culture, with its unique architecture.  That’s why I came.  I don’t expect to get too close to any villages this time, but at least, I will get an introductory glimpse in yet another facet and yet another region of Indonesia. 

If you look at the map, you will find that this is very close to where I started, in Banda Aceh.  I could have taken a night bus from there, to come here.  But since I had Nicola’s visit to coordinate, instead of making my way down through Sumatra and onward from there, my trip now resembles more of a circle.  Indeed, I am coming full circle in many ways.  I started in the most strict Islamic province, moved through a Sultanate in Yogyakarta, continued to various islands with ethnic minorities (Kalimantan) and increasing Christian populations (Sulawesi, Timur, Sumba) back to a predominantly Muslim, yet not Sharia-ruled region which is fully embedded in the pre-Islamic matriarchal Minang culture. 

Yes, that is a conflict.  But to pre-empt a repeat of any discussions on the topic:  Indonesian Muslims practice what I will call a Culture of Islam.  They do not see any conflict with the Doctrine of Islam since they typically are not educated in the scholarly fine points of their religion.  From all I can tell, the typical (mis-) conceptions prevail:  Mohammed is the perfect man, the Koran is the unaltered word of God, Jews are the evil of the world, the West is full of conspiracies, and Islam is a guidance to be kind, tolerant, generous, and to practice self-discipline to ultimately reach heaven.  Anyone who differs with their religion still has to be respected and treated with kindness.

This culture of Islam creates a lot of doctrinal contradictions, but it has earned my highest respect as it has created a country with millions of people who are predominantly trustworthy, honest, and kind.  Crime rates and violence are at a fraction of what our culture has produced in the U.S.   And in Indonesia, it has created the framework within which to glue together multiple different religions, ethnic groups, and foreigners into a single, unified country.  My hat is off to those who came up with this concept and those who still manage to maintain it. 

It reminds me a bit of some of the cultural principles aspired to by the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.  Once the cork was out of the bottle there, all those ethnic and religious groups were at each others’ throats again.  I hope Indonesia can avoid that.

2016
07.27
THREE GENERATIONS

THREE GENERATIONS

SYNOPSIS:  On the road.  From airports to hotels.  From planes into more planes, taxis and minivans.  Reaching my new destination.   About a good travel rule and about networking in Indonesia.  

The photos in this blog are of a few Sumbanese people.

At home my rule of thumb is that you have to plan an hour for everything or you will be running late.  A stop at the grocery store, just heading to the post office — you just never know what comes in your way.  Here, the rule of thumb has to be that everything takes a day. 

I will roll three days of transit into one blog, but three days of moving is finally behind me: from Flores to Bali, from Bali to Jakarta, from Jakarta to Sumatra.  I have arrived in Bukittingi, my last stop before heading home, to learn something about yet another ethnic group. 

After the miracle of actually getting off Flores Island the first night — on standby for 8 hours —  it felt like deja-vu when I landed in Denpassar (Bali).  I had been here before.  This was the airport designed by the architect of my Yogyakarta Hotel.  Waiting for my luggage took as long as the entire flight — one hour, and once again it was dark when I left the airport.

I checked into the IBIS Hotel nearby.  Not my typical kind of choice, but a safe bet.  A real hotel with wifi, clean sheets, hot showers and a huge breakfast bar.  That feels good once in a while.

My students had produced a slew of work and I spent evening and morning grading. 

I could have gotten up really early the next day, and powered all the way through to Sumatra and perhaps been at my destination the same night.  But if I do that on extended travels I will get sick in no time.  I have been a model of good health for all these weeks and under all these challenging circumstances — I can only thank heaven for a strong constitution — and I will keep a reasonable pace.

That meant that I graded in peace in the morning, nibbled myself through the entire huge breakfast buffet and at checkout time at noon, and not a minute earlier, I headed to the airport; once again without a ticket.  I assumed that it would be easier to get away from Bali than to get out of Flores. 

==================

Never assume!

Only Garuda, the most expensive and most reputable of all Indonesian airlines had a half-way decent system to coordinate people like me.  But even that system had its shortcomings.  After I checked in with a Garuda clerk I was told to show up at the Help-desk Counter by 2 PM to see if any of the four afternoon flights was available.  For two hours I dicked around at the airport showing up at the counter when requested only to find out that all this accomplished was to get me onto the waitlist!  I was pissed.  I could have been on this list hours earlier…  There was a hierarchy:  frequent flyer passengers first, ticket holders (who had missed a plane or were trying to get out earlier) second.  My standby kind third.  I was #25.  It looked hopeless.

But when the call for the first plane came, name after name was called and nobody was there.  Just like yesterday — people were ahead of me, but were counting on being called by the clerk on their phones or notified otherwise.  Nothing really mattered than actually being there in person.  I was in this game with a father-son team who were trying to get out earlier than anticipated.  They thought that they had gotten on a list the day before at a travel agency.  Turned out they were no better off then I, except they had made it on the list as #11. 

The clerk at the desk was a remarkable young man.  For hours I watched him dealing with hysterical people calmly, friendly and without ever losing his cool. 

The list shrank and shrank and after the third plane and only us three left in person,  we got on.  This time it took me only four hours on standby; a step up from the 8 hours yesterday.   

I couldn’t care less about the 1.5 hours when no plane got clearance for take-off.  When we should have landed, we finally took off.  But as a first in my entire flying career, I have seen the miracle happen that the luggage was faster than I.  By the time I had made the usual bathroom stop and arrived at the luggage belt it was already rolling.  Wow.

The POP! Hotel is only minutes from the airport.  Again, it felt like deja-vu arriving there.  This would be a safe place for all of my souvenirs to wait for me.  Twice in a row on standby, and against all the odds, my 24 Kg suitcase had made it through.  I could not push my luck any further.  8 kg stayed behind — more souvenirs, some of them quite heavy, had been accumulated since shipping off my last package in Surabaya… How I will get all of this home has to be figured out.  But that is too far away to concern me now. One step at a time.

I was in Jakarta.  I got rid of some stuff and after a good breakfast I was facing the last flight of this journey.

=======================

This is how it should be!   I arrived at the airport in Jakarta around 8 AM, walked up to the Lion Air ticket counter and had a real ticket issued for a flight a mere 2 hours from then.  No delays, no standby.  Remember there were times where you could do that in the US, too?

Luckily I was traveling with a suitcase that now weighed a mere 16 kg.  Thank goodness!  Lion Air had signs plastered all over requiring passengers to declare any weight over 20 kg.  They even made me weigh my carry-on!  I cheated just a bit and only produced one of the two pieces I was going to carry on.  With that I came in at exactly 20 kg. Whew!  My 5 kg camera bag remained unnoticed.  The official bag got tagged, but I figured that the untagged bag would remain incognito if I just carried my one tag around prominently enough.  My carry-ons are not big; they are only heavy.  It worked.  🙂

I arrived on time and without incident in Padang, Sumatra.  Off to the final stretch of this journey, which involved overland transport.

========================

Here is another really good travel rule for Indonesia:  Do not try to figure things out on your own.  Tell someone! 

I had sat at the Flores airport cafe for over 7 hours before talking to the owners.  Once they knew what I was up to, they shifted into gear.  Had they just known earlier, they would and could have helped earlier…  Remember the experience I had at Kupang in Timur?  Somebody at the T-More hotel knew what I was trying to accomplish and in no time, he helped me out finding a minivan; a much superior solution over what I had been looking for.

This time I was putting these experiences into practice.  I immediately told somebody at the luggage customer service (there was no other counter or unoccupied person in sight) that I needed to get to Bukittingi but I needed help locating the bus station.  The three people at this counter were bored out of their minds and jumped at the opportunity for some action.  They put their heads together, talked, waved me to wait and before I knew it somebody had been summoned who spoke some English.  My request was passed on to a person who was going to “call his friend”.  I was not sure what about but soon I was escorted to a car outside.  My luggage was secured and I was told to sit.

Now, wait a minute!  Nowhere in the world would I just walk away with an unknown man to another unknown man’s car, have myself and all my luggage (and all my money) stuffed in there and waited.  Here?  That’s exactly what I did without a question and without a doubt that I would be helped instead of robbed, raped, shot, or else.  Try that in America, or for that matter anywhere in Europe — no chance!

I waited, I did not know for what or for how long and decided to spend the time writing.  It was early enough in the day.  I could wait and let things happen.   About 1/2 hour later, I was told to move myself and my luggage into yet another car that had pulled up behind me.  Communication was limited, but I did as I was told.  And I found myself in a minivan with three people who were also going to Bukittingi!  The two men did not speak any English, but the hijabed women in the front seat, a photo-journalist from Jakarta spoke flawless, even colloquial English! 

She explained to me that an informal transport service, not quite legal but tolerated, had sprung up to avoid the 12-km transition to the bus station and to avoid the overcrowded public buses altogether.  This was house-to-house service for up to 6 people at a time. Four people minimum.  They had waited for two hours and through the grapevine and networking between people there, were directed toward me, to make the quota for this minivan.  So cool!  Now I understood that I had been waiting for three more people as well.   

The 3-hour trip flew by in no time thanks to the photo journalist.  She was the translator between all of us and an educated and spirited woman in her early 30’s.  I so hope that we will cross paths again.  She got out in a town 30 minutes before me to conduct research for a photo documentary about the oldest all-female Islamic boarding school in Sumatra.  How interesting!  I really would love to know what comes out of that.

I am sorry for all these travel details.  I know those of you not interested skimmed through it and that is just fine.  But for those of you traveling here or elsewhere someday, some of these specifics might provide helpful insights to make your own decisions.  And for me, writing this down will ensure that I remember some of the more mundane things on this trip as well.

Thanks for hanging in there.  Let’s have fun in Bukittingi!

2016
07.26
NAM IN THE AIR

NAM IN THE AIR

SYNOPSIS:  About making the most of a boring day.  Sitting around at the Luanbajo airport.  A note from the health and the photo department.   About luck.

I have no address, I have no phone — the clerks at the six airline offices that lined one wall of the rather sparse basement in the brand-new Luanbajo Airport (Bandar Udara Komodo) were baffled.  I pointed to the food court right across from them:  That’s where I live — at least for today.

And all day I sat there, writing my Sumba blog — so that at least something good would come of this very boring, wasted day.   

One by one I crossed them off.  the 9:25 by Garuda, the 9:35 by Wings, the 11:05 by Kalstar, the 11:50 by Wings, the 13:05 by Garuda,  Some flew West to Denpassar in Bali, some flew East to Kupang in Timur.  I didn’t care.  All I needed to accomplish was to get off Flores Island. 

I guess, that’s what you get when you don’t book ahead…

If by tonight I have not found a way to leave this airport, I will be back in town at my ramshackle Hotel Mutiara.  It is close to the port and costs a mere $8.  For the same: a fan-cooled, hot room, a traditional bathroom with a bucket and a bed with a semi-clean sheet, I have easily paid three times as much in other places. 

I will check the port and all travel agencies for anything that leaves the island.  Perhaps, a 2-day ferry will be more promising?  Perhaps some tourists are going to visit Komodo and Lombok and won’t mind another passenger.  Perhaps one of the big ferries will go on the 16-hour trip it takes to get from here to Makassar in Kalimantan?  Anything would be better at this point than waiting for four days — that’s when I could book the next officially open seat…  To reach an island with an airport such as Bali is a 36-hour bus-ferry-bus-ferry affair, that would be ahead of me. And 36 hours is calculating on the basis that each stretch arrives on time and actually connects to the next mode of transportation.  A trip I would not be looking forward to, but at least, I would be moving.  Let’s see if it can be avoided.

I had not envisioned for it to be so difficult and time-consuming to leave Flores.  The island is popular, it is high-season and still the holiday season for Eid-ul-Fitr; most likely, all of these are contributing factors.   Eid is a time when the Muslim population is on the move visiting family near and far and exchanging gifts.  Already on the ferries from Sumba and Sumbawa that was apparent.  But these huge ferries can carry hundreds of people and can easily overload; airplanes can’t.

I am not alone here.  Two Canadian women are also in for this.  Even though they arrived before me, I have the one advantage over them: being a single person.  All other parties on the waiting list are groups of 2, 3, even 4.    St. Christopher, I need a major boost here…!

At this point it is 2 PM.  6 hours are behind me 2 more hours before the last plane has left.  The basement is smoke-filled and only marginally cool.  My wooden chair seems to become harder by the minute and I am counting 15 new mosquito bites…  I can’t say this is all pleasant.

Speaking of mosquito bites.  You may remember my last major attack at the fleabag Andalus Hotel in Surabaya.  I never mentioned it again but those bites by whoever bit me there, developed into many serious bumps so bulgy, that I accidentally scraped a few.  That opened them up and they oozed for almost a week.  Sorry, for the details but I just have too much time to write right now…  No matter what I applied to these wounds, they would not close. 

To make things worse, from the heat and the humidity, I developed a major outbreak of eczema on both hands; between fingers and inside my palms.  For a few days, anything aggravated the itching; from carrying my luggage to holding my camera.  It was only the regular swimming in salt water at Oro Beach that finally got rid of both of these annoyances.  I am supposed to have stomach problems…  Not that I want any, but I have the medicine to combat them.  For these other weirdo conditions, I have nothing and pharmacies were of no help.  Oh well.  These are the joys of traveling.

Another plane came off the list:  The 14:35 by Wings soon followed by the 15:00 by Nam.

Time for some good news:  Once my big old Nikon recovered from all the wet weather in Timur and had dried out, there were signs of life.  Some buttons still froze, but I was able to initiate some of the self-cleaning operations and voila!  It worked again. 

Thanks, Ganesh!

In the meantime I made friends with David, the owner of the little food stall, and his wife who had allowed me to sit at their four-table food stall all day and who had cooked a delicious lunch for me.  David had recharged my computer and even started to make inquiries on my behalf!  Through the back channels he had secured me a seat on an 8:40 AM tomorrow which I would have to pay before the end of the office day. Thanks, Ganesh — I know you are working overtime today.  This is a light at the end of the tunnel!  But there were still three flights today.  I was holding out.

By now it was time to cross off the 16:00 by Garuda and finally the 16:05 by Wings.  No more flights today.  It’s time to go.

But wait, the 15:00 Nam was delayed. It had not taken off.  For the umptiest time I went to their window.  The girls in there were already laughing before I even reached their window.  They had seen me before.  Yes, the plane was still here, but there were 5 people ahead of me. 

That sounded very different from the previous “no, everyone showed up”.  5 minutes later:  only 3 people ahead of me.   5 minutes later:  only 2 people ahead of me.  And 5 minutes later:  Yes, you have a seat!

I don’t even know where I am going but it’s one of the two destinations this airport services:  Denpassar or Kupang.  I can’t believe I am getting out of here after all!

Now the scramble started.  I had to be fast to get my boarding my suitcase checked in.  Yeah, try to be fast with a heavy camera bag, a back pack and a suitcase.  But one of the cafeteria bus boys helped.  At the check in a big “oh no!”  My bag was 5 kg over weight but there was no time to do anything.  It had to be pushed through as fast as possible.  How lucky am I today?!

And then I end up right behind first class in the row reserved for other airline members.  A young pilot is sitting next to me and there is … one empty seat.  The Canadian girls could have made it.  They were ahead of me in the morning.  They should have been ahead of me on any list.  How did I get this seat and not they?  I will never know. 

But I know that they sat in their spot all day whereas I checked the counters frequently and made the girls laugh.  Perhaps, it is the squeaky wheel after all, that gets what it needs?  I will never know. 

See you… we shall see where. 

2016
07.25

RINCA

ADULT DRAGON

ADULT DRAGON

SYNOPSIS:  About a boat adventure with new friends, dragons, a snorkeling experience, and a hefty rain storm.

These four had done their research!  Independently, Kyle and Stephanie from Illinois and Luke and Barbara from Italy had spend a good amount of time following the protocol.  They had compared prices, ruled out shady boat providers, found a reputable company and had ended up on a really nice boat equipped for up to 10 passengers.  I was only #5 and they happily took me aboard. 

A professional and experienced crew, a clean and sturdy boat and a good itinerary had just fallen into my lap thanks to them.  And on top of that, they stretched their food supplies which had been calculated for four passengers to not let me go hungry.

Thank you guys!  I much appreciate this.

We were off to Rinca, a slightly smaller and much closer island from Labuan Bajo which is part of the Komodo National Park system that is in place to protect the Komodo Dragons.  Clicking on this link will give you their entire history much better than I can provide.  If there are any prehistoric species still around (and I think our sandhill cranes are one of them), these “dragons” truly feel like a thing from the primordial past.

After a 2.5 hour ride across the blue waters with several dolphin sightings (!) passing scenery of gently hilled islands, we reached Rica.  As expected and as almost every guidebook tells you, you do not exactly see the dragons in the wild.  On this 20,000 hectare island live almost 2000 dragons and 1000 people.  We did not see a single one in the wild.  All of our sightings were right within 100 meters of the ranger’s station where these beasts know that they will be thrown food bits by the rangers — visitors are not allowed to feed them.

These animals can grow up to 3 meters in height — a size comparison is possible at the entrance gate to the park which is flanked by two carved replicas of that size.  We saw a few that were at best half that size and one small baby.  Still, to think that these animals exist and to actually have put eyes on some of them is amazing.  They seem to eat everything from corn (which the rangers feed them) to buffalos in the wild.  On our hour long trek through the park we passed a couple of places were skulls of deer, buffalos, and even monkeys had been placed — the only tangible evidence aside from a few poop clusters — of these animals and their appetite in the wild.

Animals like monkeys and deer can be overpowered if the dragons get a hold of them.  They might have to lay in waiting until an unsuspecting animal gets close enough to them.  Buffalos are too large for them to tackle, so they use their somewhat poisonous saliva to bite them in the leg.  Then, they just follow until the buffalos collapse, which can take a couple of days.  But then it is feast day!

Buffalos, deer, monkeys, snakes, and numerous birds are part of the wildlife of this park.  We saw none of it…

After the pleasant yet uneventful walk through the park we headed back to the boat for the second stop of the day:  snorkeling at a coral reef.  We were served a delicious meal of chicken soup and rice which the four of them shared with me. 

I was trepidacious about snorkeling.  I had only done it once in my life off a coast of Mexico years ago.  I am very uncomfortable with the fin-shoes and was not even prepared for anything.  But our boat attendant twisted my arm to try one of their snorkeling glasses and breathing tubes. 

Boy, was I glad, I tried!  I have no experience and no point of comparison.  But what I saw by just floating and looking down was absolutely spectacular.  The water was calm and a perfectly preserved coral reef was within touching distance.  Red, black, and even turquoise-blue corals were interspersed with fish that looked like rocks, black balls with long fins and red “eyes” that were also a sort of coral and hundreds and thousands of multi-colored fish who did not seem to be bothered by us at all.  One kind, a pinkish one was on the attack and actually bit me.  Once I realized this, I kept kicking it away and as small as it was — no bigger than my hand, it actually attacked nonetheless.  Of the whole day, this was my favorite part.  Now I understand why people come here from all over the world.  I am sure not many of these pristine and preserved places are left in the world; Indonesia has some of the most famous ones.

In fact, it was clear that the reef had once been much larger.  Where the boats were docking, one could see the dead parts of former corals strewn around like garbage.  We destroy what we love and we love what we destroy…

Another snorkeling stop was on the itinerary but we were crossed by the weather.  A dark cloud brewed at the horizon and moved in on us.  Within half an hour the weather swung from sunny and warm to a full-blown storm and cold.  We tried to close all the shades in the boat, but as they might protect you from the sun, they were by no means waterproof.  Soon all of our seats were wet, the rain was gushing in from all sides and within minutes — we had all just come out of the water — we were shivering cold and wet.  Only the Italians had raincoats and a change of clothes, along with a few sarongs to wrap themselves in.  They shared one with me, which kept me from freezing, but there was hardly a place in the boat that could be kept dry.  I tried to take photos of this, but it was too dangerous to take the camera out.  At first we thought this was quite funny and adventurous.  But as time dragged on and the storm kept going, we got rather quiet and just tried to stay warm somehow. 

Only minutes before we reached the shores of Labuan Bajo again, the weather cleared up.  We were glad, we made it.  The value of a good crew and a sturdy boat could not be overemphasized.  Stories of broken vessels, failing equipment, and ruined itineraries abound…

After a drink at the local Pirate Bar sporting everything from Baileys to Jack Daniels, we parted.  This was a good trip.  I could not have pulled this off by myself.   Thanks again to the four of you and to my travel pantheon.  Great job!

2016
07.24
FERRY

FERRY

SYNOPSIS:  About ferries, ports, and people.

Anywhere else in the world, bus stations and ports are places where, as individual traveler in particular you have to be on red alert.  Shady characters roam around, pickpocketing is a pastime and most certainly you will be ripped off one way or another.  Not so in Indonesia. 

Waikelo (Sumba) was a crazy site but there was nothing shady about it.   Starting around 4 AM, people were gathering to get onto the ferry, just in case…  The ferry had not taken off in over a week because of high winds.  People with sacks and packs, motorbikes, overloaded trucks, stacks and stacks of bananas, animals and who knows what else were shoved into the bowel of this huge ferry leaving inches between all the vehicles at the bottom.

People on the top scrambled for seats only to end up on the floor anyhow — the place where the natives seemed most comfortable.  I had come relatively early and put luggage on a seat of my choice only to return from the bathroom a minute later, seeing it taken over by an extended family who were hoarding two rows of seats.  Fine, I moved.  There was always a seat for just a single person.

Once a family had marked its territory, mats were rolled out, hijabs were removed, people got comfortable.  Meals were prepared — full scale rice, meat, vegetable dishes miraculously emerged out of inconspicuous containers — and before long, most of humanity was in a deep slumber to make the 8-hour ride go faster.  Some people in the back of the ferry had started some sort of a gambling game with lively betting going on. I watched for a while but could not make heads or tails of it.  I wrote my diary for as long as my battery lasted.   An 8-hour ferry ride was just what I needed to catch up.  I felt good about the progress and time passed faster than I thought it would.

I had no clue how to proceed after landing in Sape.  Ferry schedules are one thing, but actual departure times are another.  Luck would have it that I could wait for a night ferry from Sape to Labuan Baje.

It was remarkable, but even in the dark, the atmosphere in Sape (Sumbawa Island) at night was relaxed and family oriented.  Vendors were roasting corn for the needy travelers who had to wait up to 5 hours between ferries.  Mini-trains were carting kids around for joyrides, and the adults were chatting and engaging with strangers. 

I had walked down the road for a block and found a hotel.  Not that I needed a room, but I could use a shower and a computer charge.  I negotiated just that with the young hotel clerk for a $2 tip.  He even threw a towel into the deal.  He was happy and so was I.  Of course you start sweating the minute you leave the shower, but it still felt good.

Center of the attention back at the port were my new friends from Spain, a family of four with two absolutely adorable strawberry-blond curly-haired children ages 3 and 4 who looked like twins and the spitting image of their mother.  I think these people are absolutely crazy to travel abroad with children this young, but they have my highest admiration.  I had seen them before cruising through Sumba on two motorbikes; each parent with one child in front of them.  And these kids behaved like little angels watching the luggage, goofing with one another, and running around playing soccer with plastic cans occasionally to get rid of their spare energy.  The locals marveled at them and were thoroughly entertained. The kids were completely oblivious to the commotion and admiration they caused. 

We adults hooked up watching each others’ luggage chatting and passing time.  We were heading the same way.  In the morning we were the only foreigners who had boarded the ferry that left from Waikelo to Sape.  Many fewer people were on the night ferry to Flores and all of us could stretch out on about 3 seats and get some sort of sleep.  For the kids we had snatched two of about ten mats the boat was renting so they could sleep on the floor.  Seeing them curled up in twin-fashion and going to sleep in no time was amazing. 

The thought of arriving in the pitch dark at 4 AM in Labuan Baje (Flores), a major port, without any idea of were to go, made me a bit nervous.  By the time I had carted my heavy suitcase out of the bumpy port area, the morning call to prayer sounded from three mosques simultaneously.  A guy on a motorbike offered his services, but with all my luggage I was way beyond his capacity.  So I bumped along the dark and empty road looking for a hotel that made a decent enough impression to stay in.  Port areas have hotels galore but often enough coupled with a good dose of prostitution and other shady dealings — not so here.  There were the rundown ones and the fancy once, but I could not discern anything that would have made me worry.

By 5 AM I had found a hotel garden with a seating area where I spread out and kept writing.  By the time the first sign of life at the reception I inquired about a room, but none was available.  Next I found a beautiful terrace cafe overlooking the harbor.  For a cup of very expensive tea I got the internet password and was rolling.  The attached hotel was also booked up…  This is a popular town on a popular island.  But I know something will be available.  For now, I am enjoying the rising dawn, the pastel tinge on the clouds hanging over the harbor.  I am in a safe place with all of my luggage and the next step will fall into place. 

Will I take a boat, stay a day or two, fly on, do some sightseeing?  In a few hours I will know more.

==================

When by 7 AM all hotel receptions in the area opened up, I found a hotel within minutes.  Bottom of the line, but no worse than anything else.  With no time to waste I was off hitting the first few tourist offices which seemed to be as numerous as boats on the horizon.  Tours are the bread and butter of this town.  Dozens of islands around are snorkeling and diving heavens.  People travel from afar for this experience.  And two of the islands within reach sport the Komodo “dragons”.  That’s what I came for.  I gave up the Orang Utans in Kalimantan, after all, there are some of them in our zoos. But these dragons are nowhere else.

It became clear that tour boats typically were booked at least a day in advance.  I did not want to wait a day and I was in no mood for wading through the plethora of reputable and not so reputable providers comparing prices and safety issues.  I just wanted to go or forget about it all.  I sprinted down to the harbor and went on the lookout for groups of foreigners arriving who would head toward a boat.  After two failed attempts (one boat was full, one boat was going out on a two-day diving excursion) I came upon a group of four heading with their light backpacks towards the pier.  That looked promising!

They were off to Rinca Island, not the more famous Komodo Island for a day of dragon watching and two snorkeling stops.  And they did not mind at all me joining. 

Thanks, Ganesh!  Let’s go.

2016
07.23
TOMB DETAIL

TOMB DETAIL

REMEMBER TO CLICK ON EACH PHOTO (once or even twice) IF YOU WANT THE FULL IMAGE

Given the importance of burials which I mentioned in the Post IT TAKES A VILLAGE, I thought I would insert a few typical tomb stones and graves here as a photo essay.  In the villages, tombs occupy the central space and are most likely still fashioned in the traditional ways (limestone) and decorated with traditional symbols.   In the cities, each family has their tomb in their front yard. At times the size of the tomb rivals that of the house…  Often, materials such as concrete or bathroom tiles replace traditional materials.   If animals are depicted on the tomb exteriors, such as buffalos, pigs, chickens, or horses – this is an indication that these animals have been slaughtered to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.

2016
07.23
ET AND PATER RAMONE

ET AND PATER RAMONE

SYNOPSIS:  Another day of explorations in Sumba.  About a very late wedding celebration, about funerary practices early and delayed and about a unique cultural center. 

People had gathered at a temporary structure and sat on numerous colorful plastic chairs at a front yard in a little village.  A few trucks were lined up at the fence of the property.  Something was happening.   Can we stop?  Yohn didn’t mind. 

It was a wedding — well, sort of.  The wedding had taken place a couple of years ago.  The couple already had a child.  But no marriage is complete in the eyes of the locals if the village wasn’t involved and if the traditional move of the bride to the groom’s house had not been completed along with a few pigs and quite a bit of stuff.  The couple had lived abroad for all these years and had returned to do their tribal duty — to officially move the bride out of her parent’s house.  The celebrations had already taken place the previous nights most likely accompanied by dancing, music and eating a lot of food; only the bride’s things had to be moved this morning.

Why bother with all of this?  Well, a marriage not properly completed might curse the union and even cast bad luck onto the next generation.  Who would chance it?!

The “stuff” had already been loaded but various men were working hard to maneuver two large pigs onto the trucks.  They could learn a thing or two from the Torajans…  A few futile attempts and finally, somebody took command and the pigs were loaded, accompanied by the customary squeaking.  A dead pig followed — that was easy.  A small bloody spot on the grass attested to its recent slaughter. 

A nicely dressed, English-speaking man welcomed me, the brother of the groom.  He inquired about my whereabouts and engaged me in a bit of small talk.  Could I meet the bride?  Of course.  She was summoned and when I took her hands loosely into both of my palms — you don’t use firm handshakes around here — she whispered to me in perfect English:  We have to rub noses now or the people will think I don’t like you

Thankfully, I had observed what she was talking about and so we rubbed noses.  That was perfect, she whispered when we were done.  Do you want to sit down? 

I had not expected a beautiful, highly educated, bespectacled, English speaking bride in this little village and was even more surprised when it turned out that she could speak German as well!  She was one of the political party-head’s daughters.  There was money in this family and obviously education and a cosmopolitan attitude. 

Corruption money?  Perhaps.  Political parties, government officials, and just about anyone associated with the “establishment” in Indonesia is suspected of participating in corruption in one form or another.   It is a sad truth around here.  But there are also a few in the political world who try to campaign against it. 

One thing is clear.  If Indonesia could root out the still widespread corruption issue, this country would have a chance of becoming one of the leading forces in the world.  It has the size, the population, and the resources for it.  But it is currently its own worst enemy.

Some people are late, others are planning ahead.  We passed another village and if I had not “wasted” time earlier, perhaps, I would have seen this crew in full swing.  As it was, I only caught them about 2 minutes before they stopped for a rather extended lunch break, too long for me to hang around.  At least 20 if not 30 men of all ages had gathered in this village for a topping-stone ceremony.  A new tomb had been carved out of a large cubical stone and the customary large stone slab had to be placed on top.  This is a ceremony that takes a few pigs to be slaughtered and eaten, and the manpower of an entire village to be accomplished. 

In the good old days, these stones had to be rolled and maneuvered by hand with the aid of bamboo rollers and ropes.  Today, a truck does much of the work.  But still a ramp had to be built at the final destination and the stone slab had to be rocked off the truck and onto the tomb just so.  Scaffolding had to be erected for this purpose and singing and loud shouting helped to coordinate all the muscles in one direction.  Nobody had died yet, but one of the families was preparing for the future.   

Funerals here in Sumba are almost as important as funerals in Tana Toraja.  Rituals have to be observed and the hierarchy of the status of the living is reflected in the hierarchy of burials.  Animals are slaughtered just as in Tana Toraja; the numbers however are not nearly as excessive.  Still, some people are not able to afford the full funerary rites and have to save up.  Just as in the wedding described above, the final touches of a funeral can be performed years after the fact.  If need be, a full ceremony can be combined for a dead couple of even more family members. 

But unlike Tana Toraja, where the dead person is embalmed, considered “sick” and kept among the living, here in Sumba the dead are buried.  Either the burial is temporary and a secondary burial will be performed later, or the burial is final, then the door to the tomb chamber is left open.  In one particular region I saw quite a few open tomb doors.  Was it a poor region?  Sumba is poor in general.  Or, was it an area of high-class people who now were too impoverished to live up to the high expectations of their class?  Perhaps, it was a combination of both or even more factors.  It could even be that important family members were at the time unable to attend the funeral ceremony. 

Once again I wondered why one could not skip the parts of a funeral that one could not afford?  But this is a thought that could only cross a secularized Westerner’s mind.  For these Christian villagers who in this case, still clung to some of their animist past, there were no questions and there was no choice.

Preserving this tribal history is one of the priorities father Robert Ramone has set himself in his Rumah Budaya Sumba, a Cultural Research & Conservation Institute near Tambolaka.   A seed collection of tribal artifacts had fallen into his hands and he worked tirelessly to secure funding as well as local workers to establish a unique home, museum, homestay and event center.  Since he is a local and lives on the property, the museum is “open” at all hours.  All you have to do is knock at the priest’s door and either he or an attendant will be happy to show you around. 

Unfortunately, father Ramone was busy showing around a small group of Indonesian visitors and so I was left with the collection’s labels written only in Bahasa.  But I marveled at the textiles, the stones, the wooden objects, and the spread of artifacts representing the various cultures and artistic traditions of  the entire island.  What a worthwhile endeavor and thank goodness, somebody lived up to the task.

This too, took “a village”.  In fact, it took international donors and it will take the efforts of all the villages and villagers to realize the value of their heritage to keep it going.  It is a step in the right direction to counter the impending “development” of this island by other foreigners into a Disneyland beach resort…