Sunday, April 24, 2016

There's a mountain, why not climb it?

Fatumnasi is in an incredibly scenic region north of Soe in West Timor. It's at an altitude of around 1800 metres above sea level, so it's pleasantly cool during the day, and mildly chilly at night. My puffer jacket got some use at last.

I'd gone there to climb a mountain, Gunung Mutis. At 2427 metres high, it's hardly a difficult climb, especially when you start so high to begin with. But it's quite an adventure to get there.

The night before my climb I met some people from Kupang, who asked me to join them the next morning for the climb. They had their own motorbikes, so I had to organise myself a bike and guide to take me there with them. My homestay host, Pak Anin, obliged by organising Steve to take me. So the next morning at 5am we headed out of the village in a convoy of four bikes in the dark. Steve's bike didn't have lights, but that was the least of our problems. The road was rocky and slippery, necessitating getting off and walking at times, until Steve decided the bike just wasn't up to the task and left me in the encroaching dawn by the side of the road whilst he returned to the homestay to swap bikes.

The others had gone ahead, so I was left alone in the wilderness. The landscape was beautiful. Open Eucalypt forest, grazing cows and horses, and numerous large rocks indicating an ancient coral reef. It could have been the Kimberley.

I heard Steve returning well before I saw him, as the new bike had a hole in the muffler. But it got us through most of the dodgy ascents and we soon joined the others at the entrance to the track to Mutis.

The first bit is navigable by bike, but again a few times the pillion passengers needed to get off and walk. In half an hour we arrived at Pandang 1, the start of the actual walk. We didn't start straight away though, because our other guide, Absolom, had a big problem with his bike also, but his problem was much more serious. The bike was stuck in a high gear and wouldn't climb any hills. They tinkered with it a little, then gave up, deciding to tackle that problem when we got back from the climb.

My Kupang companions had never climbed a mountain before. They were all young and enthusiastic, but unfit. It soon became obvious that a life of taking motorbikes everywhere does not prepare you for climbing even a small mountain like Mutis. I, meanwhile, did my usual plodding along, climbing at a slower pace than them, but not requiring the long rests as they got more exhausted. In the end I got tired of waiting the long periods between assaults on the ascent so Steve and I left them resting and we forged on ahead.

The climb is to be recommended. You walk through grassy plains with cows and horses grazing, through subalpine forest with moss encrusted tree limbs, tree fern lined gullies, and higher up through a forest with some very ancient huge eucalypts. The track follows a series of ridges and climbs steadily, but never really steeply for long, until you find yourself in the clouds. Then after reaching the first summit, you cross another razor ridge, to the true summit.

You take your pictures, put your puffer jacket on, and wait a freaking bloody hour for the others to arrive!

By which time Steve and you are very cold indeed, and you have lost all feeling in your fingers.

You share your excitement with the others, though it's hardly your first time on a summit, and feature in the many many selfies that all Indonesians take in large numbers. Then you share a snack with your climbing companions and begin the ascent. Which is pretty easy. But then again, you went through your pain three weeks ago….

Back at the bikes and Steve helps push Absolom's bike up the first hill then returns to pick me up. And so begins the long and slow adventure of returning to the homestay, as we run tag teams dinking each other whilst the boys take turns pushing Absolom's bike up all the steeps. He's fine to coast the bike down hill and along the flats, but uphill it has no power. Luckily, the road back is mostly a descent.

At the homestay there's a huge crowd, as the government officials are due any time. The school kids are all dressed up in traditional sarongs and the ladies have been cooking all day. We are ravenous, and are fed handsomely.

All in all, a lovely adventure. I'd definitely return to the region, there's lots of good walking to be had, not just a mountain to climb, and there's some quite impressive weaving too. But that's for another visit.

Next, Kupang for a rest day, then it's time to do some more island hopping….

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The chilled and the resentful, and a few kings thrown in

There are two main cultural groups in Timor. The Belu in the east, the Dawan in the west. And then there are various tribes, royal families, and a strong history of tribal warfare and headhunting.

The first village I visited in Timor was Temkessi, which is northeast of Kefa. I hired an ojek from my hotel and we headed off to see this traditional village tucked in a little spot between huge Karst rocks with views north to the Timor Sea and Alor. We got a little lost getting there, but eventually, after asking directions, we found it.

Traditional culture here is to always bring an offering of sirih pinang, which is the constituents required for chewing. In India it's called Betel nut, and produces black teeth, red stained saliva, and natural red lipstick! Everybody from the teen years on, of both sexes, chews the stuff. It gives a bit of a buzz and apparently is quite addictive. It tastes horrible, and I decided not to try it because frankly, my dentist would kill me!!

I bought some sirih pinang at the Manufui markets en route to Temkessi. It costs very little, and failing to offer some is a serious breach of etiquette. Everyone is happy when you pass around the sirih pinang, the conversation flows, and the hospitality is warm. Except, unfortunately, in Temkessi.

Unlike Takpala, which welcomes tourists warmly, you are met at Temkessi by a sour old woman who demands 50,000Rp before you can enter the village, and even when you give her some sirih pinang she fails to crack a smile. You make your way up the stone steps to the king's house at the top of the hill, where you sign the visitor's book and offer around some more sirih pinang. At least up the top they are a little more friendly. But no cups of tea or coffee after a long trip there, and certainly no trinkets of ikats on display for sale. Crazy really, as the region is renowned for its traditional dyed, homespun skates.

It's a scenic place in a lovely location, but a little less disdain of the tourists paying good money to visit wouldn't go astray. Overall, not a five star experience.

A day later I took a bus to Betun, in the south eastern end of West Timor, home to Belu people. Here I again hired an ojek for a couple of hours and visited some villages where I saw the traditional houses they build in this region. I particularly liked the lontar weaved blinds that screen the verandah for privacy and to keep the weather out. Very practical indeed.

I also visited the Royal compound at Besikama, in Umalor Desa. I met the king and his wife and family, but was forbidden from taking photos due to the adat (or local religion) being unfavourable that day. Apparently I could return the next day to take photos, as the adat would be favourable. The king was so friendly he took my phone number and actually rang me the next day to confirm whether I would be visiting or not. I had to disappoint, as I'd returned to Kefa.

Others, however, were happy for me to take photos.

After Betun I met Aka, and we commenced a four day tour ikat hunting, but we also visited some more traditional villages. There was Maslete, near Kefa, with it's carved heads in the lopo (the meeting place) and the most famous of all, Boti.

Boti is in the hills somewhere between Kefa and Soe. It is unique in that the king decided to not allow himself or his citizens to take on mainstream religion when it arrived in the guise of missionaries a couple of hundred years ago. This was helped by it's remoteness, such that the Dutch, and therefore the missionaries, never knew of its existence. So they got to continue their traditional animist religion undisturbed until modern times. And then the previous king, who died five years ago, invited tourists to visit, but steadfastly kept the culture alive. For instance children only go to elementary school, and men must not cut their hair once they marry. Yep, lots of man buns around here!!
one of the nicer sections of the road to Boti

one of the gates to the Boti kingdom

Boti market

To get there we took an incredibly rough road from Niki Niki, and Aka did an amazing job negotiating very steep, very dodgy tracks with me on the back wearing my backpack. Suffice to say I was very glad he was driving the motorbike. As we neared Boti we went through a series of gates and then we were there. We parked the bike and walked down some stone steps into a lovely palm forest with the king's house at the bottom of the slope. Here we met the king, who is around fifty, and unmarried, so he has taken on one of his older brother's sons, Nune, to be his successor. Nune is only about 4 but he is obviously very close to his uncle. Everyone is really chilled and it's a lovely place to wander around in. There's a few spots you can't go near, or photograph, but otherwise it's very peaceful. And the hospitality is laid back, and warm.

Boti King, and his prince

The people themselves don't live a life isolated from the modern world, it's just their religious beliefs and customs that they have maintained. There's electricity, provided by a generator, and the beds offered all come with mosquito nets. Then, before dinner, as my hosts were very interested in my travels, I showed them pictures of where I'd been.

The next morning we took the equally, possibly worse, rough road via Oinlasi back to Niki Niki and then visited None, the last of the head hunting villages. We met a traditional midwife, now retired, and went to see the fortress where the None people planned and executed their raids on other villages. Apparently they were the fiercest and most successful fighters in the region, and took many heads. Though what has become of them, no-one knows.

retired midwife in her house

Headhunters' fortress

The final village I visited was Fatumnasi, north of Soe, where I stayed in a traditional Dawan house overnight and was fortunate to witness the local kids practicing traditional dances for an upcoming visit by the Indonesian president's staff. And saw a rather sad cuscus in a cage.

But I was mostly in Fatumnasi to climb a mountain. Yep, I'm at it again!

That's next.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ikat hunting in West Timor

I think I died and went to heaven!

West Timor, for the textile enthusiast, is still an untapped gem. In every village there will be women on hand looms, creating beautiful works of art. But to really experience it properly, you need a guide.

After staying the night in Kupang I took a bus the next morning to Kefamanau, popularly known as Kefa. This is about 3/4 of the way to the East Timor border, is up in the hills a bit, so has a slightly more pleasant climate than the sultry humidity of Kupang. Over the following few days I visited some traditional villages and then met a local guide, named Aka, who with over 25 years of experience as a guide, offered to customise a tour for me. We would travel by motorbike to visit many weaving villages, markets and textile dealers, plus visit a traditional village or two. After attempting to travel independently, I had quickly realised that a guide who spoke the languages and understood the complex cultures, would be worth the investment.

And thus begun my incredible adventure into the world of weaving.

There are two main cultural groups in West Timor. The Belu live in East Timor and the eastern portion of West Timor, and have their own language and traditional architecture. The Dawan live in the central and western end of Timor, and also have their own language and distinctive beehive huts. They all weave, and they all have their own traditional designs and motifs. In fact, within a small village there may be different tribes living, and each will weave the motif of their tribe. It's like having an individual signature: look at the motif on their sarong and you know exactly what tribe and where they come from.

I discovered there are essentially 3 types of weaving done in the region.

First there is Putus, which means tie dying, and is the process where the thread is tied in the pattern required and then dyed a number of different colours, and then woven. This is the process I had also seen around Maumere and Alor. But in different villages, different motifs. Here's a slide show and video for you.

Then there is Buna. This is where the loom is thread first and then the pattern is twisted on to the warp. The warp is the lengthwise cotton, the weft the crosswise cotton. After one row of the pattern is twisted on, using many different colours, it's kept in place by a cross weft of plain cotton, the same colour as the warp. Once the weaving is finished, the ends are all cut off to create the finished piece. It can take an entire year just to make one piece, not that the ladies actually weave all day every day, they have other work to do as well. Here's a video of the process and a couple of examples of the product.

There is also Sotis, which is the quickest form of weaving, usually done with purchased pre-dyed cotton. The warp is threaded with various colours depending on the design and then the pattern is woven in as it goes. One of these may only take a week to finish.

Some weavings have a combination of techniques, and may also include some embroidery. Some use all homespun cotton and natural dyes, others are all factory cotton, others a combination of both. And if you visit a textile dealer, of which there are a few, you can even see really old weavings, some using cotton imported from Holland over a hundred years ago. The latter are called Letras, and are extremely valuable, asking prices from $3000 upwards.

I can't really describe the sheer variety out there, so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

If you have an interest in textiles and would love to experience seeing these works of art and culture made, I'm thinking of organising a tour, travelling in a little more comfort than the way I did it, but no less authentic an experience. Send me a message if you'd like to come, and we can talk.

But next, a story about some of the villages themselves….

Friday, April 15, 2016

How I missed my ferry

I had gone to considerable effort to confirm the date and time of my next ferry crossing, from Kalabahi on Alor to Atapupu on Timor. My research prior to leaving Australia indicated that it left on Tuesday evening, but, as I'd discovered during my previous island hopping all the way from Larantuka, ferry timetables change, so you need to go down to the port and find out for yourself.

Kalabahi has 4 ports: the one I arrived on from Lembata with the ADSP ferry, another that serves the government mixed cargo Perintis ships, the Pelni Port, and a fourth that seems to be for larger commercial ships. I started with the port I'd arrived at, because Pak Khris at my Homestay said it was the same ship that I'd arrived on that continued on to Atapupu. Atapupu, by the way, is on the easternmost tip of West Timor, just before the border with Timor Leste, and is the shortest ferry crossing between the two islands. The only other ferries going to Timor taking the much longer route to Kupang, on the western tip of Timor. I'd chosen Atapupu not only because of its proximity, but because I wanted to see Timor from east to west without having to do a round trip from Kupang.

Pak Khris told me the ferry left on Wednesday. This didn't make sense to me as it arrived from Lembata at 1pm on Tuesday. It didn't make sense to sit around for a whole day before leaving again, so I headed down there to find out.

Pak Khris was wrong. The ADSP ferry didn't go to Atapupu, a Perintis cargo ship went there, from the next port up, so I walked up there to ask again. The chaps there told me it left on Wednesday around 8pm, but it was best to turn up around 6pm to get a good position. See Perintis isn't really a ferry, they just take paying customers willing to find a spot amongst the cargo to take advantage of the short 8 hour crossing. I asked very pointedly, are you sure it's Wednesday not Tuesday? I'm quite adept at days of the week in Bahasa Indonesia, there was no communication breakdown, they insisted it was Wednesday.

So on Wednesday I happily went on my little adventure to the backblocks of Alor with Mika and Om Hary, had a shower, packed my bags, grabbed some food and water for the crossing, and took an ojek down to the port at 6pm.

To find out the freaking ferry left yesterday!!!

The Indonesian word "sudah" can be a very painful word to hear when you discover that your weekly ferry has already left, a day ago. What the hell to do now? I did, for a short while, contemplate the idea of whiling away another week drinking Sopi cocktails on Alor, and maybe actually try to go scuba diving, but I was given an alternative. A Pelni ferry heading to Kupang was scheduled to turn up around midnight, and I could take that instead.

Going to Kupang first wasn't the plan, but with good roads on Timor (courtesy of a large Indonesian army presence for all those years they were fighting the insurgents in East Timor) I knew it wouldn't take long to cover the distance by land. But first I had to wait for that ferry.

So for six long hours I waited for the ferry to turn up at midnight. It didn't. But more people turned up planning to catch the ferry, so at least I knew it was expected, if a bit late. 3 hours late!!

Yep, nine hours waiting for a ferry to turn up in the wee small hours. We boarded, and the ferry promptly departed 15 minutes after it docked.

There was maybe 15 other passengers on the ferry, and it was a big ferry. We all found places to sleep in the big bunkrooms on the lower deck, and all promptly fell asleep.

In the morning we were first awoken by the call to prayer, and then by an announcement that we could pick up our breakfast from the crew. I lined up and explained I didn't have a ticket and the purser simply took my name and 100,000Rp ($10) and gave me a boxed breakfast, a bottle of orange juice and a carton of flavoured milk.

The ferry very slowly steamed its way across the Timor Sea towards Kupang. I spent a few hours up on one of the outside decks where it was a little cooler, but unfortunately a bit noisy due to the crew doing rust remediation with hammers and chisels. We were fed lunch, and, when it was obvious we weren't going to arrive in Kupang at the scheduled time of 5pm, dinner as well.

After you've spent almost a day on a boat, people lose their reserve and become quite friendly, so the afternoon was spent chatting with fellow passengers (all from Alor, mostly going to Kupang to visit family or for study) and the crew. I watched the crew lower a rope ladder down to the pilot boat, and the harbour pilot board the boat (and shake my hand). I got to see another sunset from a boat, but I was mighty relieved when at last we docked in Kupang.

I grabbed an ojek to a hotel in central Kupang, and slept!!