Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sumba: Sensations Succeeded

Visiting Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, November 2009

It was my parents’ first visit to Indonesia, and I wanted to take them somewhere truly special. I pored over my map of the archipelago in the weeks before they arrived and considered the possibilities. Their visit was a short one, and the remote depths of Papua, the dense forests of Kalimantan, and the green uplands of Sumatra were too far away. But then my eye fell on an insignificant-looking island tilted south of the main chain running east from Bali. I had been there before and knew that it was one of the most strange and fascinating places on earth, and better still, there were direct flights from Denpasar. I would take my parents to Sumba.

Sumba is part of Nusa Tenggara, the Islands of the Southeast. This region is probably the most fascinating part of an entirely fascinating country, with gorgeous scenery, empty beaches and some of the best diving in the world. But for me the attraction has always lain in the diverse cultures of these islands. Among the nominal Muslims and Christians there is a wealth of traditions and beliefs that predate foreign religion. Sumba, isolated from the other islands of Nusa Tenggara, remained almost free of outside influence until well into the 20th Century. Even today this is a place where ancient ways are strongly preserved.

After a brief rest in Bali and a short dash through the western part of Flores, we landed from the ferry in Waingapu, capital of East Sumba. The recent launch of Transnusa Airlines has opened up the islands east of Bali for short visits, and you can fly from Denpasar to Waingapu or Tambolaka in Sumba. But for me the best way to arrive is by sea, watching the long, low bulk of the island rising slowly above the horizon after the green hills of Flores and Sumbawa have fallen away behind. According to the legends this is how the first settlers saw Sumba as they reached the end of a long island-hopping journey from India, hundreds of years ago.

A day after our own arrival we visited the place where these first Sumbanese settled. Sixty kilometres north of Waingapu, the isolated village of Wunga stands on a high escarpment ridge with spectacular command of the rolling countryside. The landscape of East Sumba is striking. Here the thick vegetation of the tropics gives way to an expansive tableland of brown savannah; it could be Africa.

Wunga is a special place, for as the fabled location of the first settlement in Sumba, old traditions have been meticulously maintained here. A dozen houses are built to the original design, with towering roofs of grass thatch. These roofs are a familiar sight in Sumba, but in Wunga even the low walls are made from woven grass, and there is no cut or shaved wood used in the construction. The ancestral graves that dot the village are made from simply piled slabs of uncut limestone, unlike the finely carved tombs that stand in other areas. Even the cloth, woven on traditional looms, is plain here, without dye or embroidery. And while elsewhere on the island many villagers have adopted Christianity and blended it with their old beliefs, the people of Wunga cling steadfastly to the old Marapu religion.

Marapu is the name given to the sacred ancestors, the first people of Sumba, and they are the focus of the old religion. The towering rooftops of the traditional houses are the home of their spirits where the clan heirlooms are kept along with the drying rice. The Sumbanese priests, known as Rato, can communicate with these ancestor spirits, and read the omens that they send in the internal organs of sacrificed chickens and pigs. Funerals are hugely important events in Sumba, for they mark the moment when the deceased goes to join the ancestors. Pigs, buffalo and horses are sacrificed to join the spirit on its journey.

From Waingapu we travelled west to the sleepy little township of Waikabubak. West Sumba is wetter than the east. Rice grows here in neat terraces, and there are stands of palm trees between the fields. Waikabubak is a remarkable place, for on the low hilltops above the main streets and bustling market stand some of the most traditional villages on the whole island. Kampung Tarung, just a couple of minutes walk from the heart of the town is the biggest and most important, but there are others: Bodo Ede, Tambelar, Waitabar. These are some of the best villages on Sumba to explore, for the villagers are used to visitors. Some speak English, and they are very welcoming, often inviting you into their homes – and perhaps offering you betel nut. The nut, with accompanying catkin and lime powder, is a key part of hospitality on Sumba. Years of chewing the stuff that give the old people of the island mouthfuls of red teeth, but trying it once or twice will produce nothing more than a numb tongue and a mouthful of scarlet spittle. My mum had a go – and said it was disgusting. After that when villagers offered she accepted politely and slipped it into her pocket – “for later!”

From Waikabubak we explored remote villages among the green ridges and valleys to the south. Traditions were strong here, and in many of the places they had seen few foreigners. Here the land ran away to a coastline of white shell beaches where turquoise waves broke on the offshore reefs. They were gloriously empty, the sand unbroken by footprints, and not a hawker in sight.

My mum wanted a souvenir from Sumba though, so back in Waikabubak we bargained in the market for a length of traditional ikat, the cloth woven by the women of the island on their back-strap looms. Every area has its own distinctive designs, with the more elaborate styles coming from the east. But we chose a piece from the west with simple, abstract patterns.

We had tickets for the short flight back to Bali from the little airport at Tambolaka, north of Waikabubak, but we still had three days to spare. On the recommendation of a friend I had booked rooms at the Newa Sumba Resort, on the north coast near the little port village of Waikelo. We arrived in the evening to find it a place of spectacularly splendid isolation. The resort has just a few cool rooms of dark varnished wood in buildings with high Sumba-style roofs. There were no other guests, and no one else for miles around, for the place stands on its own strip of perfect beach facing an empty ocean and surrounded by dense, dry forest. It was utterly peaceful, and for the next two days we did nothing but read and swim, watching the sun falling into the west and listening to the sound of the waves and birds in the trees behind the beach. It was the ideal place to reflect on our journey through the remarkable culture of Sumba – and strategically located despite the illusion of castaway remoteness: Tambolaka airport lay just ten minutes away, and Bali an hour beyond that.

As the plane banked upwards through the morning air my father craned his head to catch one last glimpse of Sumba as it faded behind us.
“I think that’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been,” he said. I smiled to myself: I had succeeded.

© Tim Hannigan 2009

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