The sound of the motorbike’s engine faded and I was alone at the end of the rutted red track. Quiet returned in the form of a gentle tapestry of birdsong and the busy whisper of the river, running through its field of bleached stones. Green hills rose on all sides.
I had spent the night in the little upland town of Soe, 110 kilometers east of Kupang, setting out early in the morning in a brightly colored public minibus. The passengers were old men dressed in sarongs of hand-woven ikat cloth. As we wound along a tortuous forest road they had asked where I was going.
“Boti,” I told them, and they nodded – ah yes, Boti, of course! – and when a heart-stopping view opened from a high ridge, the man sitting beside me pointed towards a scattering of rooftops on a distant green slope.
“Boti,” he said; “there it is…”
The minibus dropped me at the roadside and a young man on a motorbike took me along a rough track through the trees until we reached the stony riverbed, the point beyond which vehicles could not travel. I would have to complete the last part of my journey on foot, and as I was heading for a village famous for having guarded its traditions more closely than any other community in West Timor, that seemed like the best way to go.
I shouldered my backpack, picked my way to the edge of the rushing water, then slipped off my shoes and waded to the far shore…
The rugged green uplands of Timor are chock-full with traditional villages, but Boti stands out as something special. This is a community still ruled over by its own, self-styled king, a place that over the generations kept colonialists and Christian missionaries at bay and that still prefers its own age-old adat customs to the modern Indonesian nation state.
But if that all makes it sound like a daunting place for the would-be traveler, then rest assured that there is one foreign phenomenon that Boti has welcomed, shrewdly, successfully, and entirely on their own terms – tourism. Well-behaved, culturally respectful visitors, prepared to brave the rough roads to Boti’s ridge-top fastness, will receive a warm welcome.
Across the riverbed the track reappeared, rising into the forest. Houses with neat gardens and thatched, dome-roofed outbuildings appeared beneath the trees. Chickens and bristly black pigs wandered ahead of me along the track. A small boy politely led me to the threshold of what looked like a beautiful half-wild garden – the inner compound of Boti where I was to be the guest of the village’s royal family.
At the end of a stone paved path stood the king’s house, a neat little chalet with a tin roof. Sitting on the wooden veranda were a gaggle of women in ikat skirts. They welcomed me as if they had been expecting me, and in a few minutes a glass of sweet tea and a plate of fried bananas had been placed in front of me. The women, grouped around Mama Tua, the Queen of Boti, talked softly, the beads of their heavy jewelry clicking together as they moved their hands.
Guidebooks make much of the fact that little Indonesian is spoken in Boti. However, village children now attend government schools, and while most older people know nothing of the national lingua franca, many villagers, including Mama Tua, do speak Indonesian – slowly, carefully and precisely, handling the language like the foreign object that it is.
Around twenty people live in the inner compound of Boti, while another 70 households beyond its wickerwork fence also closely follow the original adat customs of the village. They are mixed in amongst families who have adopted Indonesian identity and Protestant religion, but according to Mama Tua a total of “315 souls” still follow Boti’s original ancestor-worshipping faith.
After a welcome meal of rice, fresh greens and chickpeas – I was hungry after my uphill walk – I wandered along the muddy yellow track above the village. Across the green ridges evening was falling, pale cloud clinging to the hillsides like smoke, and as I made my way back to Boti in the dusk a cool rain began to fall.
The village has received a steady trickle of foreign visitors since the previous king, father of the current ruler, cannily decided that welcoming low-key tourism would not only provide cash income; it would also help to preserve the traditions of his little realm. The guestbook reveals a couple of hundred separate visits in 2009, and in the green forest garden of the royal compound a simple guesthouse – four rooms with wooden beds and ikat blankets – has been built. For a donation you can stay the night, and that was what I decided to do, falling asleep to a chorus of frog-song and insect noise, far beyond the reach of roads and electricity.
I met the king, who had been absent the previous day, in the coolness of the following morning. Nama Benu, known as Bapa Tua, only took over the role a few years ago, after the death of his father, but he is keeping Boti’s traditions strong. With a gentle, handsome face and his long, frizzy hair tied back in a ponytail – Botinese men must wear their hair uncut after marriage – he spoke just enough Indonesian to welcome me to the village, but no more.
Royal audience over, I wandered through the village. The traditional houses of this part of Timor are roofed with thick thatch, reaching to the ground and pierced by a low doorway. They are known as ume kbubu, which simply means “round house”, and are usually used as kitchens. The morning cooking smoke was leaching out through the wet thatch as I walked.
There are other traditional buildings in Boti. Lopo are cones of thatch raised over stone platforms used as a meeting place and for storage. The top of the royal lopo in Boti is marked by a carving of three birds.
Pah, one of the young men of the village, told me that the Botinese believe that they are descended from people who came from the nearby Lunu mountain – and also from the birds. Because of this avian ancestry the hunting of small birds is forbidden in Boti, and the branches are full of song.
“When they are being hunted in other villages the birds fly here to be safe,” Pah said.
Boti is famous for its ikat, the loom-woven cloth iconic of East Nusa Tenggara. But unlike in other villages where the hard-sell can mar the visits of inquisitive outsiders, the people of Boti handle the business of selling their work perfectly. When a visitor arrives the community showroom – a traditional thatched building – is simply left standing discreetly open for anyone who wants to buy one of the beautiful pieces at a very reasonable fixed price.
With a couple of small lengths of ikat packed in my own bag it was time for me to make my departure from Boti. It was such a beautifully, dreamily peaceful place that I was reluctant to return to Indonesia and the modern world.
Pah walked with me to the threshold, pointing out the lower village where many people now follow Christianity.
“But not us,” he said; “we follow only what came from before, what has descended.” Under the rule of Bapa Tua, and with the benefits of tourism to show the value of traditional culture, it seems likely that the next generation of Botinese will continue to do so.
© Tim Hannigan 2015