Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ikat hunting in Sumba

I had heard the ikats were good in Sumba, but I hadn't really any idea how good they were. Until Kevin, Sylvia and I hired a car for the day and went off to visit some villages south of Waingapu.

First stop Rende, home to some royal tombs and our guide for the day, Charma. He's royalty, but also a friend of Karel and Rosa's, and despite his mum being sick in hospital, agreed to show us around. Rende is a royal compound and the traditional houses facing the tombs are used for ceremonies and for the funerals of royal family members. The tombs are huge megaliths, carved with many animal figures, though more recent tombs are made from cement.

As if the tombs and houses weren't interesting enough, the women weave beautiful ikats as well. All using traditional dyes, meaning they are priced considerably higher than those made from factory dyed cotton. And I'm afraid I was smitten…

Horses are a traditional motif on Sumba, as are many sea creatures like turtles, prawns and lobsters, as well as roosters and cockatoos.

Another traditional motif is the mamuli, which is depicted on everything, from weavings to woodcarvings, to tombs. It's a depiction of fertility, namely a vagina!

After Rende we went to Pau, a village that is unique in weaving intricate designs using a technique they call Labaleko. I'm afraid my finances got cleaned out in Rende, so Sylvia and Kevin did the buying whilst I just took many many photos.

Finally we visited Kaliuda, down towards the southern coast, where ikat making is quite an industry. We saw some beautiful stuff here, got to see the weaving in action, and were impressed by the reasonable prices being asked. Unfortunately, I was right out of cash…

The following day I hired a motorbike driver to take me to the northern most point on Sumba. Wunga is said to be the first village settled when the ancestors descended from heaven at Cape Sasar, but these days consists of three run down houses in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't worth the effort to get there, and I point blank refused to pay the 100,000Rp they were asking for visiting and signing their visitor book.

The visitor book is an institution in any village that receives regular foreign tourists. You sign your name and nationality, a comment, and donate an amount of money for your visit. Most places leave it up to you to decide how much to give, but at Wunga they pointed to a note at the front of the book suggesting 100,000Rp per person, which is ridiculously overpriced for what is merely three run down houses, no views, no tombs, and no-one to even tell you about the place. My ojek driver, Lobo, even agreed with me, so I gave them a smaller amount, along with a bag of sirih pinang, a traditional gift when visiting the villages, but no substitute for cold hard cash!!

We drove back south, had a late breakfast, then headed up into the hills to visit another traditional village, Prainatang. This place is a true fortified village, completely invisible from below, with extensive river flood plains below which the villagers farm. The village elder showed me around, (once I'd hired a sarong to wear whilst in the village), pointed out various old tombs and the views of the farmland below, and sold me some slightly dodgy wood carvings. Now this place was worth visiting.

See the fortifications?

Entrance gate to Prainatang

Not a bad view

Pretty extensive river plain to farm

Finally Lobo took me to a more modern village called Padadita, to meet the king. He was unfortunately away on official business, so I got to have a look at some ikats instead. I fell in love with these, but unfortunately I was still out of cash, awaiting the obligatory day or 2 for a money transfer to arrive in the appropriate account. So I was saved from myself…

In central and west Sumba I saw no ikats, only normal weaving, usually with factory dyed cotton, and most designs were similar. The quality varied considerably, and I gather most of the production is either for local use or to be made into tailored clothing. From a textile hunting point of view, it's slim pickings.

I purchased this piece once it was finished. I think it will make nice cushion covers...

How the design is created

But East Sumba, wow! Only it's all considerably more expensive than elsewhere in NTT. Not surprising really, when you consider the amount of work that goes into making these beautiful textiles.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

And now for Sumba


Some people get it confused with Sumbawa, the island east of Lombok, but the island of Sumba, sitting on its own in the Indian Ocean south of Flores, is one of the poorest and more traditional islands in the Indonesian Archipelago. Aside from intrepid surfers who come to ride the huge ocean swells that pound the south and west coasts, and a few ikat hunters, there's very few tourists indeed. Which is a pity, because a bit more competition for the tourist dollar might lead to more realistic accommodation pricing.

I took the Pelni ferry, Wilis, from Labuan Bajo to Waingapu, on the north east coast. To get my ticket the day before I'd had to knock on the window of the ticket office in order to get the chap to open up and sell me one. Of course I didn't know this, so I pestered the port officials a few times before they came over with me to the closed up office and found my man.

The next morning, the Wilis arrived, docked, loaded and departed, though this time not within 15 minutes. I found a seat on deck in the shade, and for the next 12 hours whiled away my time whilst we oh so slowly crossed the Sumba Sea to Waingapu.

In Waingapu I was met at the port by my hosts Karel and Rosa, a Dutch/Indonesian couple I had met in Kupang, and we drove to their little oasis north of Londalima beach, where they've lived for 8 years. There are two houses, one a traditionally built Sumba house, the other an approximation of one, filled with antiques from the previous owners, pigeons perching on the rafters, and numerous geckos. Also there were an English couple, Kevin and Sylvia, similarly plucked from the same place I'd met Karel and Rosa.

The property is by a beach, dissected by a river, with mangroves each side. Rosa and Karel have planted hundreds of trees to create a lovely shady retreat in what is mostly a dry treeless landscape. The original house, purchased from an antique dealer along with all the antiques, contains the kitchen, an open air bathroom, 2 verandahs where we take our meals and have long stimulating conversations, and sleeping quarters for guests. The second house, which was built by Rosa and Karel to a traditional design, following traditional marapu rituals, is their private retreat.

Marapu is the name of the traditional religion of Sumba. It is a form of ancestor worship, is animistic, and in the not so distant past involved head hunting. Villages were built on the top of fortified hills, and there is a very long history of royalty, polygamy and slavery, which are said to still exist today. Marapu is usually blamed for why Sumba is so backwards, why all the money that the Dutch and subsequently the Indonesians poured in to the island hasn't improved people's lot, that Marapu resists change and technologic improvement. However, I question whether either administration ever invested heavily in the region, and only now, as foreign investors buy up beachside land to build resorts, are roads being built and basic infrastructure being upgraded. Catholicism has brought a semblance of education, but there is little economic growth or opportunities on the island, and many people, women in particular, go overseas to work as domestic servants in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

I stayed a few days at Taparoka, returning again prior to flying to Bali after exploring the rest of Sumba. I mostly relaxed, read books, ate wonderful food cooked by Rosa and their maid Tina, and enjoyed some great conversations with my hosts and other guests. I also went on a couple of day trips to see traditional villages and be amazed by the beautiful natural dyed ikats that East Sumba is so famous for. But that is quite another post.

OK, that's next...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gobsmacked by nature

After having eaten up a day at the homestay in Denge, I had two days left to get back to Labuan Bajo for my Friday ferry. I decided to go visit a little place called Sano Ngoang, and check out another waterfall. I didn't have any expectations, as there was limited information about these destinations in the tourist brochures, but I'd been informed that the road was OK, so off I went.

Back along the highway again, but this time it was a wonderfully blue sunny day with nary a cloud in sight. Quite a change after the last few days, when afternoon showers put paid to doing much outdoor activity, or else getting absolutely drenched in a downpour. I climbed the hill at Cancar to see the spider web rice fields, the colours not so pretty once the rice has been harvested, but still worth the climb. Then it was further along the highway for an early lunch before heading south on the road to Werang.

There are two roads from the highway to Werang, and neither of them are particularly good roads. They are narrow, winding, and frequently the asphalt has washed away and it's only stones or mud beneath. Given how steep some of the descents are, it's pretty challenging riding, but I took my time, applied my brakes evenly, and arrived at Werang unscathed. From Werang, once you are through the village, the road is pretty smooth all the way down to the crater lake of Sano Ngoang.

The area is surrounded by forests, and is a popular spot for twitchers, so Burung Indonesia (the national birding association) has helped set up a number of homestays in the village of Nunang, which is on the southern aspect of the lake, where there are also hot springs. I just turned up, and an English speaking lady called Anna sorted me out somewhere to stay, then offered to take me for a little walk around. What she didn't explain was that she was offering me a guide service...

It was a pleasant couple of hours spent with Anna and a few kids, some hers, some just neighbours'. We went down to the lake, skimmed a few stones, then went for a swim in the mildly sulphurous water (no fish live in the lake). Later we went to the hot springs, where we picked the young shoots from a bush which only grows on the gravelly ground nearby and cooked them in the hot water bubbling up. They tasted a little like asparagus.

Then we hopped in to a small pool for a soak, and Anna gave my legs a massage, then we used clay to defoliate our skin and washed it off in the gloriously hot water. When I later discovered that these pleasant few hours would be charged to me as guide services, I was a little annoyed at the lack of transparency, but as the price quoted was very reasonable, I didn't mind.

The overnight stay in the homestay was comfortable, the food simple but adequate, and the next morning I headed back to Werang because I was off to see another waterfall.

Cunca Rami isn't heavily publicised in the tourist brochures, because the road from the highway is pretty dodgy. But from Sano Ngoang to Werang it's fine, and from the turnoff it's a pretty easy ride through another village or two to the end of the track where it crosses a river. I parked the bike and continued on by foot.

The walk takes less than 30 minutes, and involves crossing 3 rivers to get there. well the same river twice, and then a smaller feeder river is the third crossing. I really had no idea what I was going to see, so after crossing the smaller river I turned right on the foot track because it would join me up again with the main river. I noticed that the left fork seemed a slightly more used track, but it's difficult when walking along in the countryside, as these tracks are often also used for getting to farms and rice paddies. In fact, right in front of me were some beautiful rice terraces, with a man spraying some chemical over them. I was about to ask him which way the waterfall was when I just so happened to spy my quarry…

By far the most spectacular waterfall I'd seen in Flores, or anywhere for some time. It had a gorgeous pool for swimming in, and the spray formed beautiful rainbows.

After the waterfall I retraced my steps back to the bike, and took the road back to the highway. This road is closer to Labuan Bajo, and was in even worse condition than the road I'd taken yesterday, with large sections being just stones. I was glad to be going uphill rather than down, as braking on uneven slippery ground is much scarier than controlling one's speed going uphill. I made it unscathed, and was soon whizzing along the highway and back in to Labuan Bajo.

I met one other tourist on my walk back from the waterfall, but otherwise, in the two days in the area, I was the only tourist. It's an incredibly rich area for flora and birds, and natural beauty like the crater lake and waterfall, but because of bad roads, it doesn't get much tourism. I was so happy I'd gone.

But now I was back in Labuan Bajo, it was Thursday afternoon, and on Friday I was taking a ferry to Sumba. But first I had to buy a ticket.

That's next….