To imagine a place, a tiny island with real tribes, that live in ancient traditional houses made from bamboo and grass in tiny villages where they live off of the land, harvest their own crops, sell their crafts of intricately and unhurried hand-woven items textiles. Additionally they have annual deeply rooted traditions such as funerals and Pasola in the months of Feb and March which I witnessed with my own eyes and heart. Here is the experience of such a place that I not only visited but lived, as one of them, a member of the Waikabubak Tribe.
There are times throughout my travels where in the moment I have small monologues in my head where I’m giggling at the situations I am in and how on earth I’m even going to begin to describe this in written words to others, where I can really captivate the audience to feel and visualise how it was through my eyes, so initially writing this I felt like perhaps I would explain a little bit more through imagery and immerse the readers through my photography. So I’ll try my best to do a little bit of both as this 4 day stint was one of my rawest and soul shocking experiences I have entered into for a while.
I like to think after four years of being on the road, I’ve grown as a person and see the world with a diverse eye within cultures, humans and lifestyles throughout countries. Well this path of Sumba was a whole new disparate one, a plane ride, where I didn’t really have a clear idea or sense of what I was entering into, which sent my stomach into swirling nervous, spiralling knots. The plan began at the end of a humbling, heart melting week in Ubud and already having travelled a couple of times in Indonesia, I wanted the next point of call to be somewhere that was off the beaten track. So doing a little research, and by little I mean a few solid hours, we came to the conclusion that being in the perfect months to visit with the Pasola Festival and the famous funerals to attend, we packed up our bags and headed for the island of Sumba. There a two main airports that you can fly into on the island; Tambolak and Waingapu. We wanted to start with the west side of the island as we found a reasonably reliable source on a couple of previous blog posts, to stay with a woman who lives within a village that consists of 7 tribes. Yuli was her name. She lived in Waikabubak and her tribe was the Merapu tribe. We had no idea what to even think when we were on the hour’s long ride in the Jeep that picked us up; a couple glances at each other back and forth as we were passing some of the poorest shanty towns I have ever seen. Dogs and cats roaming the streets aimlessly, just skin and bones, and generally just a lot of chaos, people trying to survive from the littlest means possible from an island far from thriving in economy or tourism. My first sightings and thoughts was an overwhelming amount of empathy, wanting to be able to be a part of understanding a way I could help. Yuli spoke very good English, which was very comforting and put me a little more at ease, as very few people on the island cannot say anything more than a hello. We arrived in her village and walked up the hill to these beautifully peaked bamboo, grass thatched, traditional houses. With families and children who flocked to us. These radiant, unique looking beings, with enticing bold, brown eyes, held onto us with strong, deep curious stares. I think that’s the first time I can say I felt like a celebrity. We settled into the evening pretty quickly and Yuli walked us round her village and she explained a lot about the array of different tribes and their way of life.
There is a huge population in these small villages, 35 percent of the population of Sumba itself adheres to the traditional animist Merapu religion. The other 65 percent of the island claim to be converts to Christianity. The traditional Sumbanese religion is to maintain a peaceful and fruitful relationship with the Merapu, the ancestral spirits. Sumba in fact is the only island of Indonesia where a majority of the population still follow the ways of their ancestors. Yuli was explaining that they are very proud of their culture and value their traditional way of life and tribal unity. Just within the first few hours of being present in the village it was like going back in time to the stone ages, where everything is done by hand; from setting up the kitchen stove and fire in the evenings to cook, to the woman sitting outside on the bamboo structure to weave their traditional sarongs and ikat clothes that they then sell to the occasional visitor/tourist. Among all of this unique, unity and one-ness that I was very quickly being brought into and seeing with my own eyes, I hadn’t even started what I was yet to know would be the biggest two eye-opening events of my travel to date.
There was so much to take in, within the first few hours of being in the village and it was the first time in a long time that I felt anxious, but a good, excited kind of nerves. I’d never seen Indonesian’s like this, they had a unique, glow about them and a shine in their eyes of a life and story they have yet to tell. The women hold themselves strong and tall and a downpour of emotions that they run the village with profound respect, strength and leadership. The tribe and villages could not keep their wheels turning without these generations of women, an inspiring and moving form of empowerment.
I was in awe; at everyone and everything. Their traditions and ways of life are almost so simple and archaic, you have to see it for yourself to believe it. A prominent tradition that they engage in everyday is something they call sirih pinang (betel nut);It consists of areca nut and betel leaf and the betel nut chewing combination has a final component of limestone powder. Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years in much of the geographical areas from South Asia eastward to the Pacific. When you mix the components together and chew slowly up to an hour too sometimes; the saliva in the mouth forms to a dark redness, the more potent the red saliva and spit the better. Not all Sumbanese do this as often as others, but after a period of time you begin to have a black tar look to the teeth and to them this is a good thing and part of there cultural rituals. Yuli did mention that back in the ancestor periods, they used to do this for long periods of time to prevent hunger when times of the season their would be a lack of crops and harvest. I of course will try anything once, and so I did and it was a pretty hilarious experience, with laughter and appreciation for a moment shared.
We set out the next day to the funeral that in the Sumbanese life is a huge event. It is one of the most important parts of Sumbanese life; death. They say it is when the mortal soul makes its way into the spirit world. Sumbanese funerals can be extravagant, and full of slaughter and offerings, some can last up to seven days in fact. We brought with us an offering of sirih pinang (betel nut) which I briefly explained earlier the fruit and limestone powder they chew on. This is thought of as a peace-offering; along with sugar for the hundreds of coffee trays that were brought out whilst waiting for the ceremony to begin. Yuli gave us a quick run down of what the funeral was going to consist of and mentioned that there would be Buffalo killings and dependant on the different amount of tribes that would attend would be the telling of how many Buffalo were to be killed. The funeral can last up to 8-10 hours or more, and then up to a week long celebration and recognition of soul and a turn over of life and a beautiful one lived. As we walked through hundreds of people, tribes from all over the west side of Sumba gathered down at the village where the ceremony was taking place. It got pretty intense as being the only westerners in a crowd as big as 600+ Sumbanese, you stand out as rather a large target, but we knew this going in, I think you can just never anticipate what the feeling is, of that many stares and eyes on you.
So we sat with our tribe of people, and we awaited what I can only describe as a massacre of animals and bloodshed; a slaughter of a total of 6 Buffalo right in front of my eyes. The process only the men do, each man carries a sword, tucked in his traditional sarong that he wears to the funeral and I’m not entirely sure how the process is of who gets to take a turn of the hacking process of the buffalos neck, but they just hack away at it whilst some hold onto the rope tightly and control the weight and swaying of the beast and the others just one by one take it in turns to put their sword into it next. The crowd sitting on the balconies and steps of the traditional houses cheer and watch for the entire slaughter show. For me it was not so much shouting and cheering it wasn’t something that was easy to be a part of and watch, but I went with an open mind and some sort of appreciation that this is all just apart of their culture, way of life and ethically and politically I come from a completely different scale and view of living and way of eating. I’m a vegetarian so my beliefs are polar opposite to their daily traditions and way of viewing life on this planet. I would say I had to almost suppress as much as I could and tighten my gut up and be apart of something that was just a once in a life time experience, so I did just that. I can certainly say though how lucky am I to just have witnessed something somewhere so unique, in an area of the world that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily choose to travel too.
So after the slaughtering had finished and for this funeral in particular was a total of six buffalo the show must go on and the skinning begins; the men congregate together; they first skin and then slice up the buffalo; throwing each huge piece onto the bamboo leaves placed on the ground and towards the end of the show each tribe gets to take some of the meat back for their village and families to eat. The Buffalo to me is a creature with a life, an existence who has feelings and to watch blood over spill, violently and create a slaughtering show is hard to sit and watch slow death for the time frame that we did and to also not feel ashamed and saddened inside, but it was an experience and way of life that I chose to witness and gain an understanding of.
We trooped on and the following day was the event I was most looking forward to, the famous Pasola. The Pasola was another huge event, where we knew there was going to be not just hundreds of Sumbanese people and tribes, but this time round up with the thousands. We travelled north of the Waikabubak area, to the north-east side of the island and headed for Waingapu. The Pasola is a game and festival that many people gather at in the months of February and March. It is played by the Western Sumbanese to celebrate the rice planting season. The break down of the game is played by throwing wooden spears to the opponent while riding a beautifully dressed horse. The game is played by two different groups of men or tribes, on opposing sides of the battle-field. It is something that requires a high level of riding and throwing skills. So a lot of these men were strong, rigid body types. It is quite a bloody game, due to the spear throwing involved and an aim to hit the flesh of the participants. The traditional sense of the pasola are the ancient beliefs, that the blood spilled on the battle-field will fertilize the land and the crops and harvest for the season will be fruitful and plentiful.
As we walked through the huge crowd, we clocked lots of stern looks of curiosity, especially from the men (quite rare to see two Western women alone at the event); raring to fight and brace the battlefield, but none the less we were welcomed and acknowledged by the Sumbanese people and walked slowly awaiting the start of the battle.
Everything was full of such life, colour, strength, boldness, competitiveness, and violence. The men who were riding and fighting were dressed in bright, beautifully put together outfits wearing hats which had colourful ribbons draping off the sides. We stood in the beating, intensity of the heat for most of the day and as the hours passed the game grew stronger in intensity and rage and loudness of the crowd grew along with this. Being a spectator of something that only takes place once a year was really so unique and fascinating. We ended up leaving the event just a little before it ended and we heard that towards the end of the fight, huge riots and violence broke out between both tribes; rocks and stones were thrown across the battle field at anyone who could be seen as a target. I didn’t fancy losing an eye that day so we made for a quick, safe exit and was happy with the filming and photography that we managed to capture amongst the passionate and heightened pace that it all took place in.
So for us, that was our time coming to an end in Sumba; we had three huge days full of completely new sighting that led to emotions and senses that I can truly say I have never felt before in my life. I tapped into areas of my soul that I didn’t even know were there. I found strength in myself that maybe to some you wouldn’t have to dig up to hold yourself tall in moments, but for me it was a type of strength and awareness that you had to find in a different area intuitively within and to able to have the opportunity to feel this inside of yourself is a beautiful, profound element in life that you have to go out of your way to want to discover. We don’t scare ourselves enough or find points in our lives that make us test who we are and how we define pull ourselves apart. I opened up my heart and mind on a scale that had an indescribable frequency and radar that was moving quicker than I could keep up with, I felt this more in the last three days than I have in the past 6 months. So I write this to you in hope that I somehow have been able to invite you into the story through my eyes and truly how the part of Sumba that I experienced was. And if you get the opportunity to see this part of Indonesia and experience something so raw and real on so many different elements and to test yourself and your very being that you are, then turn the next page and jump into something that I promise you wont regret you’ll only laugh, tell stories about and perhaps even write-through your own memories and precious moments that this very life is about.
Oh and did I mention this is where we slept!!
Useful contact information
Waikabubak Tribe/Village There are two main airports on the island of Sumba
Yuliana Leda Tara
There are two main airports on the island of Sumba
– Tambolaka – West Sumba – East Nusa Tenggara
– Waingapu – East Sumba – East Nusa Tenggara
Airline’s which operate
– Garuda Indonesia
“What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet”