Originally published in Garuda in-flight magazine
Small fishing boats move slowly towards the horizon. A soft breeze runs in from the dark hills across the bay, shifting the sagging leaves of the lontar palms, and an itinerant ikat salesman wanders lazily along the street. A bright sun reigns over everything, lighting the white paintwork of the seafront buildings, and dancing on the surface of the Sawu Sea. This, it seems, is the perfect tropical backwater, a place where nothing moves very quickly.
But then, with a thunderous blast of noise and a dash of dazzling color, something roars onto the scene to shatter the illusion – an earthquake? A meteorite? No; it’s a bemo, a public minibus. It screeches to a halt, paintwork gleaming, windows and bodywork covered with decals, multiple aerials lashing, bass-heavy musical accompaniment throbbing from the under-seat speakers. The fare collector, with an ear-to-ear grin and hair as luridly colored as his vehicle, leans from the door – where do you want to go?
Welcome to Kupang, where the pace is slow and the public transport fast.
Closer to Darwin in Australia than to Jakarta, the capital of East Nusa Tenggara is one of Indonesia’s most remote cities. But it’s also a place with a decidedly quirky character and more than a few dashes of startling color.
Kupang is the gateway to a galaxy of small islands where the roads are rough and the traditions are strong, a harbor town from which rusting ferries roll towards lost horizons. Most visitors arrive with their sights set on wilder landfalls: the pristine dive sites of Alor, the green mountains of Flores, the surging surf of Rote, the ancestral villages of Sumba. But those who linger in the city before heading offshore will find a place with a distinctly offbeat charm. So clamber aboard one of those spectacularly decorated bemos, the colored thread that runs through Kupang like the weft of a length of ikat cloth, and check out what the city has to offer.
Long a hub of interisland trade links, Kupang’s 340,000-strong population is a polyglot mix of Timorese, Rotinese, Sabunese and others. Head for the traditional markets that line the backstreets and you’ll meet people with roots on offshore islands, and find smiles given an extra dash of bright scarlet from betel nut. Betel, a mild intoxicant chewed with sour catkin and a dab of lime paste, is the lifeblood of Nusa Tenggara. Grab a bag from one of the roadside stalls if you want to try it yourself, but be warned – you’ll end up with a mouth like a freshly feasted vampire! You’ll also run into wandering ikat salesmen. Ikat is the iconic hand-woven cloth of Nusa Tenggara. Each island has its own unique colors and patterns and motifs, and Kupang’s traders usually have a bundle of fine pieces from around the region draped across their shoulders – just don’t forget to bargain hard!
Kupang is a curious mix of deep tradition and bright modernity. This is a Christian-majority town where everything shuts on Sunday, where nuns rub shoulders with punk rockers on the streets, and where the rear window of one candy-colored bemo might be decorated with a picture of Jesus, but the next will be adorned with a portrait of Valentino Rossi or Avril Lavigne.
Heart of the town, and throbbing hub of the bemo network, is the seafront at the western end of Jalan Siliwangi. The water’s edge is studded with palms; there’s a skyline view of Pulau Semau, and local fisherman work right from the shore. This was the site of the original port of Kupang, where Dutch and Portuguese traders came to buy fragrant sandalwood and sturdy horses from the hills of the hinterland. It was also the spot where Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame finally stumbled ashore after his epic 7000 kilometer voyage in an open boat. Bligh was stuck in Kupang for 47 days, but unfortunately for him the Pantai Laut Bar wasn’t open in 1789. Today it’s one of Kupang’s two prime waterfront watering holes. With sunset views and ocean breezes it’s a fine place to while away an afternoon, as is its rival at the other end of the seafront, Lavalon Bar, run by colorful fount of tourist information, Edwin Lerrick.
But if exploring is more to your taste than indulgent idleness, take a bemo heading east from the seafront, and perhaps bring some earplugs if the deafening “full music” soundtrack – anything from Kupang’s homegrown brand of country and western to imported gangster rap – isn’t to your taste. The bemo will take you hurtling along Jalan Garuda. At night this road fills with flickering gas lamps and mouthwatering aromas as Kupang’s night market, the best place to sample the city’s super-fresh seafood, gets underway. The catch of the day is on display and the street chefs will cook up your choice while you wait.
But in the meantime rock on along the palm-lined shore to Pantai Lasiana. Kupang’s best beach is a broad stretch of sand with fine views to the rugged mountains on the far side of the bay. Outrigger fishing boats are pulled up above the tide-line and the shore is backed by a bank of lontar palms. Known as “the tree of life” in Nusa Tenggara, the lontar provides fruit, sugar, leaves for weaving, and sweet sap for making tuak, a mildly alcoholic palm wine. Lasiana locals are adept at shinning up the sheer trunks to harvest the juice, which is sometimes distilled to make a rather more fiery beverage known as sopi.
A little way beyond Lasiana in the village of Oebelo you’ll find another lontar product, and an emblem of Kupang. Originating on the neighboring island of Rote, the sasandu is a harp made of lontar leaves. The best are crafted in Oebelo by sprightly septuagenarian, Pak Jermius Pah, who’s also something of a maestro when it comes to playing the instrument. Pak Jermius has given virtuoso sasandu performances all over Indonesia, and has played for politicians and celebrities, but he still spends his days crafting the instruments from lengths of dried lontar leaf in his humble Kupang workshop.
The wild world of Nusa Tenggara opens all around Kupang, and a glance at the map here will be enough to tantalize any would-be island-hopper. But even for those on a flying visit without time to cross the Sabu Sea to Flores, Sumba or Alor there are chances for adventure a short hop from Kupang.
Two hours east from Kupang, into the rolling hills of West Timor, is the sleepy town of Soe. Here you’ll find cool, misty mornings and a market full of ikat and betel nut, and out amongst the surrounding ridges and rugged river valleys there are traditional villages with thatched, beehive houses where women weave bright cloth on clattering wooden looms. Out here Christianity blends with ancestor worship, and ikat is part of everyday dress. The stony landscapes are a world away from the jungles and rice terraces of Bali and Java, and in the dry, scrubby forest here it is easy to remember how close to Australia this part of Indonesia is.
There’s another remote and rugged place a short voyage south of Kupang. The little island of Rote rides off the western tip of Timor like a ship at anchor, and a daily fast ferry makes the crossing from Kupang’s Bolok harbor to the jetty at Ba’a. Rote would be a forgotten corner of the archipelago if not for one thing – the waves. On the southern side of the island’s spine of low hills is Nembrala Beach, a strip of blinding white sand backed by drooping palm trees where the full might of the Southern Ocean unloads in long lines over sharp coral. Surfers from all over the world flock here in the dry season to ride the waves, while less adventurous visitors make the most of the sheltered waters inside the reef, of the fresh seafood –lobster is a specialty in these parts – and the fiery sunsets.
But even without straying far from Kupang itself there’s a chance to get back to nature. When the tropical heat brings a torpor to the town that slows even the bemos, locals head for the hills south of town and cool off in the natural power-shower of Oenesu Waterfall. Surrounded by dense green forest, dappled sunlight and birdsong, the deep plunge pools are a fine place to wash yourself free of travel grime before returning to Kupang to catch the sunset from the waterfront, gorge on fresh fish in the night market, knock back a glass of sopi at Pantai Laut, or plot an onward voyage into the nether regions of Nusa Tenggara in Lavalon Bar.
Kupang after dark takes on an air of tropical tranquility. Lontar leaves are silhouetted against the moonlit waters of the bay, the last few ikat salesmen wander sleepily homewards, and everything is still – until, of course, you catch the throb of bass and the screech of tires as a late bemo blazes through the night in a blur of flashing neon…
© Tim Hannigan 2017