It was my third trip to Indonesia. Maybe you will think: “Again, Indonesia?” Yes, because there are fewer and fewer countries that remain intact, except the islands of the Pacific.
Indonesia is a huge country, which has 13,700 islands and an ethnic and cultural variety of the richest in Asia. Within Indonesia itself you can not compare Irian Jaya with Java, Bali with Lombok, Sumba with Timor, and the Moluccas with Sumatra. It has many travel facilities, people are openminded, and life is very cheap.
The islands of Nusa Tenggara have a wide transport network that allowed me to move from island to island taking small planes. But I had to organize very well, since there were no daily flights to the islands. On the other hand, the land transport was done with buses and “bemos” so as not to have to depend on some schedules; I chose the private motorcycle that consisted of going as a “package”. Since work is scarce, many young people save to buy a motorcycle that they use as public transport, and thus are able to pay for it and have a decent job. And for me it was the best way to know the best places on the island.
After a stopover in Bali, I arrived at Sumba Island. It has an animist culture as rich as fascinating, particular funeral rites and an intact landscape and rural beauty. It is the least visited island, therefore, the most unknown.
The island is divided into two regions: the east and the west of Sumba. To the east, Waingapu was the gateway to the island and the first contact with the Sumbanese.
This is where I established the base to know the villages known for the famous ikats, the most famous handmade fabrics in the country. The designs, very expressive and bright colors, are historical representations and show a variety of very surprising reasons: trees, deer, snakes, horses, human figures, etc.
On the other hand, the west is more traditional, and Waikabubak is the base town to meet and tour the traditional villages also called kampungs. On the other hand, the south has the most beautiful and spectacular beaches of all Nusa Tenggara.
In the east of Sumba I stayed at a nobleman’s house in the village of Prailiu, next to Waingapu. He had a rank like the mayor. In Sumba, wealth is given by possessions; the more land and animals (buffaloes, horses, pigs) a person has, the richer the others consider it. I was welcomed by a large family of eight children and with them I was able to share small family parties as a member of the family.
I began to immerse myself in the customs and I learned to behave in situations very different from my culture. Life in Sumba revolves around crops, livestock, poultry and betel.
Every time I visited a village, I had to ask the permission to the kepala desa, the village chief, to allow me to enter. And the protocol was to offer each other the betel that the locals chew.
Chewing betel nut is a common practice that has stimulating properties and gives strength to continue the day. Betel nuts are mixed with leaves that are filled with dead lime and other substances that are used to chew them. They cause a lot of red saliva to be produced, which spits and dyes the mouth and teeth, and makes them fall with the passage of time. Before, the beauty of women was measured by the redness of the mouth.
I am surprised by their animist culture as their little universe revolves around the marapu, the spirits present at all times of life, from birth to death. In fact, before any minimally important act – a trip, a wedding, the beginning of a harvest, the construction of a house – they will appeal to the marapu, in order to ensure a good result or a happy ending.
On the other hand, the west of Sumba is an intact tropical paradise. I liked it much more than the east. I was surprised by their fantastic rural houses or kampungs, built in the shape of a pyramid on pillars of trunks. They always follow an exact pattern and are constructed according to a social and ritual unit. They are usually grouped around the stone tombs of their ancestors. Although I had already seen them to the east, these constructions are even more impressive, as the ceilings are taller and more elaborate. It is necessary to emphasize the towns of Ratenggaro and Rangabake for being located in idyllic places, near the sea. Here the people received me with much curiosity and as in all Sumba, with the usual welcome of: “Hello Mister!!!”
Luckily, there are still pretty virgin beaches in the world. I mean the beaches of Marosi and Rua. Although the Sumbanese live with their backs to the sea and only use it to fish. Therefore, you can walk completely alone, through spectacular, paradisiacal and desert beaches. Yes, really alone, without hotels, houses or roads. I just admired the contrast of the lush vegetation that dies in the white sand and the turquoise sea of its beaches. I run I walk, I jump; I couldn’t believe where I was. I had let the hours pass under the tropical sun, diving, collecting shells on the beach. I sat down on the conch shells and coral sprayed to breathe the beauty and tranquility that surrounded me. For a moment, the rest of the world had disappeared beyond the horizon.
But one of the goals that was pending in Sumba are the funerals, very similar to the Toraja people of Sulawesi, of which they differ simply the place where the deceased are buried.
Mr. Bunni Mesa Woleka, 55, had died in the village of Kalimbukuni. I went at the day of the funeral; I introduced myself to the family and asked permission to witness and photograph such a dignified ceremony. As a sign of respect, I dressed like them in the traditional dress consisting of a turban and a vivid sarong around my waist, from which a dagger camouflaged in a wooden case hung.
Death is the most important event in the life of the Sumbanese. They believe that if the deceased is given a great party, the deceased will become an ancestor and watch over the well-being, health and luck of their families.
It all started early in the morning, when more than 200 guests were arriving by the music of the brass gongs. They brought gifts for the relatives of the deceased, to whom they gave their condolences. It consisted in buffaloes, horses or pigs, which arrived adorned for the occasion, and also with ikat cloths and garland flower crowns. All the guests sat under the large tent that had been set up to welcome them. It begins with the religious ceremony in which the Methodist Christian priest will make a sermon, accompanied by a choir that interprets emotional songs. Then it is time to eat and the family has prepared a large buffet where nothing is missing. Once the stomachs are satisfied, the final apotheosis of the ceremony arrives: the sacrifice of the animals. They are sacrificed in a number proportional to the wealth of the family of the deceased. The first buffalo appeared, dragged by ten men, while the executioner held the knife ready to make a dry cut in the neck, causing the blood to flow like a fountain. The animal still had the strength to refuse to die in such a cruel way, but in a few minutes it falls down because of the loss of blood, which spreads like a red river. One after another, the sacrifices are repeated until killing a total of eleven buffaloes. This not only gave them a true euphoria so they did not have enough, and they did the same with a horse. That was already the end point of a great bloody ceremony that ended with the dismemberment of all the dead animals to remove their guts and meat, which was then distributed to all the guests. I also took my part however I had a hard time watching this dantesque show.
Then the deceased was buried with symbolic offerings of food, ornaments, clothing, jewelry and betel to chew.
A few days later, I had the opportunity to attend another funeral in Waikabubak. The mother of a well-known town politician had died.
What separates them from us is the concept of death: for us it is a goodbye, and for them it is a journey to another dimension.