Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Hidden Timor Village Shares its Secrets with Tourists


The traditional West Timor Village of Boti

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 02/11/10

The minibus was full of the sour scent of betel nut. I was crammed into the front passenger seat between the driver and two old men with thin, wiry limbs. All of them were wearing heavy, knee-length sarongs of local ikat cloth, and their voices were blunted by the wads of scarlet betel they were chewing.
Outside the forest was cool and damp and green and the road was full of red puddles. We were bouncing along a mountain road southeast of the little West Timor town of Soe; my fellow passengers were talking about the Raja, the King. The new raja was keeping the adat – the traditions – very strong, they said. He couldn’t speak any Indonesian. He had actually been second in line to the throne, but his older brother had moved out of the kingdom and had “entered Christianity” and so lost his right to rule.
It was a simple enquiry from the driver about my destination that had kicked off this tantalizing conversation; the “king” in question was the hereditary headman of Boti, the remote village towards which I was heading. On a high promontory above a sweeping panorama of mist-chased hills the driver paused and pointed. Far below a clutch of pale roofs showed between the trees.
“There it is,” he said; “Boti!”

***

Boti, about 50 kilometers from Soe, is West Timor’s most famous traditional village, known for its unique “independence”. Under a succession of self-styled rajas the hilltop community there has kept the outside world at bay, rejecting first Dutch colonialists and Protestant missionaries, and then the Indonesian state with its education, language and infrastructure.
But the previous Raja, father of the present incumbent, demonstrated that he was not simply some hostile isolationist. Indonesian government services and prescribed religions might have been rejected, but there was one outside influence that Boti had allowed in, on its own terms: a little low key tourism. The place was, I had heard, not only a bastion of traditional Timorese culture, but also a model for responsible cultural tourism.

***

I bade goodbye to my betel-chewing companions at a roadside market, and a youth with a motorbike took me several kilometers further along a rough track. A stony river bed was as far as he could go, so I shouldered my pack and continued on foot. The sky above was pale and bleached, and beyond the hissing of the river there was a tapestry of birdsong.
It was an uphill walk to the village. Pigs and chickens foraged in the undergrowth, and here and there a neat little house with shuttered windows stood in a clearing of packed earth. A clutch of wide-eyed schoolchildren led to the threshold of a beautiful half-wild garden. Tall palms towered overhead; between them stony flowerbeds were stepped down the hillside between crooked pomegranate trees.
At the end of the path stood what passes for a palace in Boti – a little wooden cottage with a wide veranda. Outside the dark doorway a gaggle of village women were chatting and chewing betel nut. They reacted as if they had been expecting me. In a few moments I was sipping sweet coffee, and the women – Mama Tua, the Queen of Boti, foremost amongst them – had resumed their conversation. Their heavy beads and bangles clicked together as they spoke.

Guidebooks and tourist brochures make much of the idea that Boti is completely cut off from the rest of Indonesia, but this is not entirely true. Many villagers – including Mama Tua – do speak some Indonesian, and the new generation of Botinese children are enjoying an Indonesian education in the government school on the edge of the village. Other hints of Indonesia seep in too – though sometimes a little late. In the gloomy front room of the Raja’s house, amongst the doilies and old armchairs, hangs a formal portrait of President Suharto, of the kind displayed in homes and offices everywhere a decade and a half ago.
The royal house stands in the inner sanctum of Boti, ringed by a fence of brushwood. Two families live here, Mama Tua later told me, her jewelry clicking. In total 70 households come under the direct rule of the Raja, and “315 souls” still adhere to Boti’s original ancestor-venerating Halaika religion.
According to legend the first people of Boti descended from a nearby mountain called Lunu. Legend also states that the royal bloodline is mixed with that of the birds, and as distant cousins small birds are offered protection in the village. This was the explanation for the excess of birdsong I had noted on the walk in.
“When they are being hunted in other villages the birds fly here to be safe,” said a young man of the royal family named Pah.

As the light thinned into the evening I wandered through the village. It was studded with traditional Timorese buildings, the beehive huts known as ume kbubu, which simply means “round house”, and the conical meeting places known as lopo.
It is unsurprising that a place as beautiful and peaceful as this draws interested visitors, and the guestbook showed that there had been around 200 separate tourist arrivals in the past year – a trickle, but a steady one.
The cornerstone of the little tourist economy here is the hand-woven ikat cloth made by village women. Ikat is everywhere in Boti, as blankets, scarves and sarongs. In other villages in the region the arrival of a tourist often launches the hard sell, but in Boti the community shop – a low, thatched building – is simply left discreetly unlocked, and visitors are free to wander in at will and pick up a few pieces at a fixed price.
To accommodate these travelers there is a simple village guesthouse, and after a meal eaten by lamplight under that portrait of Suharto, that’s where I slept. There was no electricity here, and the night was thick and velvety as I settled down under an ikat blanket to a chorus of insect noise and falling rain.

***

In the cool, clean light of the morning, I met the Raja, Nama Benu, known as Bapa Tua. He was a lean, upright man in his forties, with long, frizzy hair bound back in a loose ponytail (all married Boti men must wear their hair uncut). He welcomed me, and then left Pah to translate any questions. I was not entirely convinced that this total royal lack of Indonesian was genuine – most of the other Botinese of Bapa Tua’s generation speak it quite well – but it was a powerful statement of Boti’s determined independence.
It is striking that that independence is coupled to a remarkably confident approach to tourism. The rough roads keep visitor numbers low, but those that do arrive are handled with an understated calmness that the slick professionals of bustling resorts would do well to learn from. Payment for food and accommodation is left at guests’ discretion, as is the choice to buy a piece of ikat – though few go away without at least a small sampler in their backpacks.

My own stay in Boti was only a short one, and after breakfast I thanked the Raja and made my way back out of his little realm towards modern Indonesia. Pah saw me to the gateway. As we walked he told me that many people in Boti’s outer orbit, the hamlets of the lower hillside, had become Protestants and abandoned the older traditions.
“But not us,” he said; “we follow only what came from before, what has descended.” As I took one last look at this strange, dreamy place, deep in the hills, I felt that between their confident cooption of tourism and the rule of Bapa Tua, they would continue to do so for a long time.

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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