Waikabubak Sumba’s wild wild west


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 September 23 2010

Waikabubak, a village like town of about 12,000 people is the major metropolis of western Sumba.  We feel as if we have stepped back into the old Indonesia of the 80’s when our kids were young and cold water mandis were as good as it got.  We are the only foreigners in town and attract friendly “Hello mistah” wherever we go.  I keep my Indonesian phrase book at the ready at all times as there is pretty well no English spoken..

Our reason for coming here was to see the unique tribal villages in the area and they are quite extraordinary.  Sumba is the poorest island in the poorest part of Indonesia and these villages are on a par with those of the hill tribe people of northern Laos where we spent two weeks with our guide, Thong.  We have been most fortunate to find an excellent guide here, Timo, who is from one of the villages but works here in Waikabubak at the simple hotel we ended up in when we arrived. 

We have just spent the past two days with him visiting a number of remote villages and what an interesting experience it has been.  The village homes are generally built on top of a hill, probably to gather the breeze and to encourage water run off as it sure knows how to rain here.  (Dry season, never rains in September but this year…I tell you it is our karma).  The homes are entirely built of bamboo and have the most arresting tower like thatch roofs, shaped rather like funnels with low overhanging skirts that hang to within 3 feet of the ground.  To enter the house you have to duck under the thatch (easy for them, not for us, Timo is approximately 4’9”) then climb onto a small porch of halved bamboo sticks laid as flooring, thence onto a second platform which runs around all four sides of the house and where everyone sits and does … what looks to us like chew betel nut all day and chat.  Of course people go off to the fields too.  All this climbing from platform to platform is hazardous for people as large and ungainly as we are since the bamboo supporting the roof is really sharp and as you all know Doug is very prone to ramming his head into any and all available projections.  So far only one major bruise.

The wall of the house beside the verandah is decorated with the horns from all the buffalo killed by the household.  Older homes have up to twenty of them larger horns are about four feet across.  Hanging from the rafters are jawbones from the massacred pigs, and bizarrely, in one house, all the empty packets from the cigarettes smoked, hung on strings rather like festoons of Christmas cards.  Since in the past these people decapitated their enemies and dried the heads, apparently some of the older homes also have shrunken heads in the sacred place in the rafters.  They seem to be still a rather volatile lot, while we were there two villages just outside of town had a falling out and when the dust settled two people were dead and 15 houses burned to the ground!

  The living quarters of the house open off the next level of platform and are completely open and unpartitioned.  The cooking fire is set in the middle of the bamboo floor on a base of hardened mud. You can imagine the fire risk. We saw one child with a terribly badly burned foot and a whole village of 60 homes that had recently burned to the ground.  Ten or so people live in each house sleeping on mats that they set out at night around the fire, the theory being that the smoke keeps the mosquitoes away.  Not sure about that, the place is swarming, with all this unseasonable rain bringing them on worse than usual, and malaria is endemic on this island.  (Fingers crossed the Malarone is working, I have about 50 bites despite regular deet applications)

When you enter a village you must go first to the house of the headman, have a chat on his porch for a while, and sign the guest book in which you leave 10,000 rupiah (just over a dollar). Not many names in the books, we were the first in months in some.  You also must give gifts of betel nut and clove cigarettes to the headman and to many of the others who immediately come around to stare at the foreigners (in a friendly way, but really can you blame them, imagine what anomalies we are).  We stopped at the market on the way each morning to stock up on supplies of the gift items.  We also bought our lunches for the day from a warung, a small café which is most common here, where they make all the food in the morning and set it in covered bowls in the window, from whence they scoop some rice, some vegetable goop, jackfruit cooked with chili, and a protein source into a banana leaf, fold it up, wrap it in a bit of brown paper and voila — lunch to be eaten with the hands later in the morning.  Needless to say, those with tender foreign stomachs are leary of meat or chicken which has sat at tropical temperatures even until lunch time, but luckily they have boiled eggs and kind of an omelette which we thought should be a bit safer.  There really are no restaurants in Waikabubak, I fear eating will just be for survival on parts (most?) of this trip.

The focus for the village, and a fascination for us, are the series of huge stone tombs which surround the homes.  The older ones have elaborate carvings in the stones and the brand new ones in the town area are tiled with gaudy tile and some are decorated with religious figures.  They seem to have combined their traditional animist beliefs with Christian symbolism to some extent.  These villagers are  not Muslim like the majority in Indonesia.  The tombs are essentially crypts which are opened when family members die and more bones are added.  Often they save the corpse for years until they can afford the proper funeral.

We had the most wonderful good fortune yesterday at the second village we went to.  We visited the area of Kode which is on the east coast and famous for its extremely high roof peaks and its stunning setting on the edge of a white sand beach.  Our guide book suggested that it was advisable to go with a guide since the people are considered lawless and aggressive so we were pleased to have our faithful Timo with us.  We arrived and I could immediately see where the aggressive reputation came from, it is one of those cultures where everyone screams at everyone at the top of their voices and they appear to be engaged in an enormous feud but according to Timo at one point they were discussing the rain which was falling in buckets at the time, had we not had an interpreter we would have felt rather nervous.  The headman was younger than usual and very friendly, with the most attractive house we had seen, the supporting pillars of which were elaborately carved.  They suspend a box to hold offerings to the gods over the fire area and his was also made of very lovely wood and much more elaborate than we had seen.

We had no sooner signed the book, handed over some of our betel nut etc, than out of the rear of the house came an old man in full  regalia, ikat wound around his waist and head, and with the ubiquitous huge machete at his belt.  He pulled the machete out of its wooden sheath and began swinging it wildly around the heads of the assembled throng, dancing from foot to foot all the while and shouting in raucous tones.  Immediately two women began ululating and also stomping their feet, at which point the drums and gongs started up.  We kind of shrank back to avoid being decapitated by the wildly swinging blade and at that point Timo who had been conferring with the headman told us that we had happened to visit during a ceremony to disinter and reinter the old man’s parents’ bones.

When his parents died (years and years ago judging by the bones) the old man did not have the funds to erect an elaborate stone crypt so he promised their spirits that when he could, he would bury them properly.  As Timo put it, he told their spirits that they would rest quietly for a while in a simple place and later they would move to their proper home.  The ceremony was to take place over three days and we happened along on the day they were digging up the old grave.  We were invited to join the ceremony.

Timo explained that we should have brought food for the feast which would take place 2 days later, but since we hadn’t he would put in more betel nut supplies and we could put in $5 in rupiah.  They brought tea for all assembled (oh dear but we had to drink it) and offered us betel.  What you do is take a bit of this green plant that is like a parasite on trees, dip it in powdered limestone which you hold in your hand, then add some cut up betel nut and possibly some areca nut, then chew as your saliva turns blood red and runs down your chin at which point you spit vigorously. Don’t worry, they understood when we declined but insisted we take our share home for later.  We gave it  to Timo who chews.  You cannot believe what it does to the colour of your teeth and lips and after years of constant use, all the older people seem to have lost the elasticity of their lips and are rather slack mouthed looking.

At that point the pastor, a young woman, arrived.  Apparently they had decided to have a Christian blessing on the event too.  She conducted a short service, 3 long prayers, a couple of hymns which we recognized, and a little sermon of which the only words we got were Bapak and Ibu which are the honorifics for men and women so she was talking about the deceased couple.

We all then repaired to the grave site (visualize the worst downpour of rain you can imagine, coupled with thunder and lightening) and somewhat protected by a sieve like tarp, a group of men removed the rocks from the graves, then began to dig them up.  It was an amazing sight for a number of reasons, one of which was the only implement they had was a crow bar, so they would loosen the ground with that and then they did all the digging with their hands.  Fortunately they bury the dead sitting upright and folded so the actual excavations only had to be about 3 feet square but about 5 feet deep.  Two ikat sarongs had been brought and carefully folded into bag like shapes to receive the remains.  Soon parts of the grandfather began to appear and Doug leaned over the grave to identify the various bones as they came up.  The grandmother’s grave took longer and they were perturbed as to whether they had caught everything so a man who seemed to know anatomy came and picked through them and confirmed that they were finished.  They then folded the bags carefully, threw an egg each into the graves and the men began to close them.  At that point, a man we hadn’t noticed, murdered the dog he was holding with a machete and they dragged that off to act as a sacrifice, seemed a bit odd using a dog, I kept insisting it must be a goat but Doug said it was a dog.

They then repaired back to the house for more betel and refreshments before beginning the task of reintering the bones into the huge stone grave that had been constructed.  They had the immense flat top for it on a truck, earlier we had heard the men shouting at they dragged it to the truck, the weight would have been tremendous.  We thought they might be hoping for the rain to let up before they continued, so though they wanted us to stay, we left, drenched to the skin and mud half way up to our knees.

That was the climax of our two days, but we saw so many interesting things.  The health of the people, especially the children, varied quite a bit from village to village (depending on the difficulty of accessing water)  but most of them looked poorly nourished with evidence of active or healing impetigo everywhere.  In the  headman’s house we admired a six week old baby, I just looked around and could not imagine how you would keep a baby clean enough to survive.  I guess the only reason they do is breastfeeding.  We ran into a most bizarre French fellow at one of the villages.  He had been living there, outside the village in his own little bamboo house for 6 years trying to do some water projects.  He had a scheme for building wells with interlocking parts to make the digging safer, and his latest scheme was to power a submersible pump with 260 solar panels to draw water 1500 meters up to the village.  It would be daylight only operation to avoid the use of storage batteries which pollute the environment.  They had had generators donated for pumps, but no money for diesel and no expertise to fix them when they broke.  He had nothing good to say for charity groups.  It seemed to me he was teetering on the knife edge between eccentricity and madness.

We spent today wandering around the little town, between rain deluges, purchasing some items Doug forgot like a belt and flashlight in the market — it’s always such fun to do that.  Tomorrow we are off to Waingapu in western Sumba on the “travel” which is a 12 passenger minivan for which they assure me they sell only 12 seats — after 25 people in similar vans in Guatemala I am sceptical but we will see.

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