Waingapu – the languid east of Sumba

September 30 2010

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Waingapu – the languid east of Sumba

We left Waikabubak in a small bus, first traversing a winding but paved road through the interior plateau, then through grasslands dotted with humpbacked Indian cattle, finally descending into the stifling heat and humidity of Waingapu, Sumba’s largest city at 40,000.

Sumba is well known for the quality of its ikat weaving and is one of the few places in the world where genuine ikat is still being made.  This is a highly labour intensive art form and the finished panels relate the oral history of a culture for whom the written word is a fairly recent acquisition. A hand loom is strung with the vertical threads (natural cotton spun by hand) on to which the design for the finished piece is drawn in blue and red pencil.  The blue areas will remain blue, the red areas will be white and the rest will be either red or maroon depending on how they do the final dying.  Men do the tying which is very slow, painstaking work.  Small areas are wound with fibre which is impervious to the dye.  The first colour will be blue so they tie all the white and red areas as a first step.  In order to be able to tell which strings they have to cut after the blue dying, they tie the areas that will be red with a different style of knot.  When the piece is ready for the blue dye, they send it off to the village that specializes in dying.  Women do the dying and weaving.  The piece sits in the natural indigo dye for a very long time, when finished it comes back to the tiers for the next round of knots.  They cut the areas that will be red and tie the areas that will remain blue.  If a blue area is not tied, the red dye will turn it a dark maroon.  Off it goes back to the village again for another dye job.  Sometimes they repeat the dying of a colour several times to deepen the intensity of some areas.  Once all the dying is done, it is dried, untied and then soaked in macadamia nut oil for two months.  Then the weaving is actually done, with black cotton thread used for the horizontal threads. With all the steps involved a piece can take up to 2 years to complete.

The finished patterns are amazingly intricate. The designs used are all symbolic and the stories represent important events such as traditional ceremonies like weddings. Bride kidnapping, and funerals, as well as depictions of myths like the creation story.  We got a crash course in Sumban symbols from Freddy, a very nice fellow we had met at the huge party that was happening when we arrived in Waikabubak and who invited us to visit his weaving centre in Waingapu.  He picked us up at our hotel when we got here and took us out to his place where the men do the tying and where we could see ikat at all stages of the process.  We had a great time looking at dozens of finished ikat as he explained the stories and his wife unfolded and refolded them.  The one we bought depicts the funeral tradition.  We chose it because it has the village houses we have been visiting and the giant tombs, as well as the skull tree which we saw in every village where they used to hang up the heads to dry, and all the animal sacrifices that are done at a funeral.  It was very hard to choose as each one was completely different from the others.

Sumbans adore horses and breed a type of very fleet, very tiny horse called a Sandlewood horse. You see them everywhere, tethered in villages or free in the fields.  They are immaculately cared for, carefully groomed and extremely healthy looking. They are not for work, the use them for racing of which the populace is inordinately fond, and for an annual event called Pasolo, which is basically a fight to the death battle between two teams mounted on horseback and wielding heavy lances.

We attended the weekly Sunday races. It is, of course, a betting event.  The beautiful tiny horses are paraded before the stands to excite the crowd. Groups of two or three horses are ridden around the dirt track by very young boys — about 8 to 12 years old (just the right weight and degree of foolhardiness to be jockeys)  who ride bare back at a furious and heedless pace.  Groups of men stand in the centre of the track, each group backing certain horses and they bet on the outcome.  The kids just careen around the track, slapping the horses on the rump with one hand and holding the reins with the other.  Heaven knows how they stay on, they must start to ride when they are 2.  The leader sometimes looks back to see if the others are gaining, and we saw one little lad lose his seat that way but no one seemed too perturbed, someone picked him up and shook him a bit, great treatment for a concussion we thought.  All the people in the stands cheer for and bet on their favourites though not as heavily as the men in the field.  Freddy told us he has a friend with a lot of horses, and when his son began to approach 12 and was getting a bit heavy, he married a second wife in order to breed a couple more jockeys! It was an amazing spectacle, all the beautiful tiny horses being paraded past the stands, then the hell bent for leather nature of the races, and the tiny jockeys so brave and foolhardy.

We spent the rest of the day visiting some villages in the south.  This area is much more prosperous than west Sumba and these villages had electricity and wells.  Some houses had replaced the traditional thatched roof with tin, but had retained the funnel shape.  At one village the king of that area had a residence, very decrepit, a remnant from Dutch times.  The Sumban kings are still very powerful. There are four classes in Sumba: priests, royalty, free people and slaves.  Yes slaves — the ikat and the tombs all have depictions of slaves attending the funeral of their master in order to be sacrificed along with the buffalo, pigs, goats and chickens.  I assumed in my naivety that slavery was a thing of the past, but not so, apparently all the tiny little huts we see in the fields are occupied by slaves who work the fields and give half of everything to their masters in the village.  Although it isn’t legal to actually sacrifice a slave nowadays, when someone of the priest or royal class dies, somehow an “accident” takes place when they are dragging the huge stone to the burial area and some poor souls are sacrificed to join the master in the after  life.  Pretty well the only way a slave can escape his fate is to go to another island to work, as in Sumba everyone will know he is a slave.

We’ve had a good time in Sumba despite the lack of tourism facilities — which I can understand since we have not yet seen another foreigner — we thought we saw one in the distance today but he turned out to be an albino Sumban.  Kind of makes you realize how addicted to email you are when the internet never works…  We’re off to Flores tomorrow, flying to Ende since that is the only place the plane goes from here, and then we will work our way around the island.  Really hoping for some internet connections there as they apparently get more tourists.  We’ll see!

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