Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sumba – The Land of the Warriors

“Welcome to one of the least economically developed islands of Indonesia”, said Cip as the plane taxied once we landed in Tambolaka, western Sumba. 

That was no joke. Up on the sky, I was both intrigued as well as bewildered to see the stretches of roads in white colour. That to me only signified one thing: those were not asphalt roads. And from up there they went all over the place, all white. They meant there was less development. At the same time that also said something else: there would be an open space for a more rugged trip this time. And I instantly loved it. 

A gush of very hot air hit me on the face as I walked out of the plane. I thought it was the plane’s machine or something. Well. Turned out, that is, Sumba. Welcoming me to another paradise, albeit a hot one. 

Marapu - The Ancient Belief

Just like people in Nias, the Dayaks in Kalimantan, or the Torajans in Sulawesi, Sumbans have their religious traditions that are rooted in their belief of the spirits of nature and their ancestors. It is called Marapu. 

Though christianity and Islam have spread across Sumba, but many of the rituals of Marapu are still held quite close to heart by Sumbans. They will still take part in ceremonies, much like the Christians in Toraja or anywhere else in Indonesia where such belief once reigned very strongly in people’s lives. 

I am not going to try explaining what it is, Wikipedia has it all: 

They believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the Doomsday, the world of spirits in Marapu heaven — Prai Marapu. The word Marapu means: Firstly, the occupants of the eternal heaven, who lead a similar existence to men. They live in couples and one of these couples is the ancestor of the Sumbanese. Secondly, the spirits of Sumbanese ancestors in Prai Marupu. Thirdly, the spirits of their relatives. Fourthly, all spirits dwelling the universe. Marapu has mysterious and magical authority over human life.

According to Marapu beliefs, any spirit consists of two elements: Ndewa and Hamanangu. Marapu teachings concern the balance of universal life through which happiness can be gained. This balance is symbolized by the Great Mother (Ina Kalada) and the Great Father (Ama Kalada) who live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they are husband and wife who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese. To honor Marapu, the Sumbanese put effigies, called Marapu statues, on stone altars where they lay their offerings in the forms of Sirih Pinang (a dish containing betel leaves, nuts and lime) and sacrificial cattle. The statues of Marapu are made of wood in the shape of human faces. These images are usually placed in the yard of their houses or inside the traditional houses.

A further manifestation of devotion to Marapu and the ancestors is reflected in the continuing construction in parts of East Sumba of impressive stone burial monuments, vestiges of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. In many cases individuals will put their families into debts extending into future generations in order to build these tomb stones in the traditional manner.

Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living. Once sufficient funds have been acquired, it is not unusual for several generations of Sumbans to be buried or reburied together in segmented compartments of the below-ground tomb in a manner that does not violate incest taboos.

So pretty much like what I saw in Toraja, there are ‘mausoleum’ everywhere. While Torajans called theirs patane, Sumbans call their tombs kabang or watu pawesi. They are shaped like a huge table, and they exist in almost every home’s front yard. 

In modern times, they are made out of cement. In the past, they are made of stones – that is why they call it ‘kubur batu’ or stone tombs. We can still find the megalithic stone tombs, quite easily, even by the road. The size of these tombs signify wealth and social status. 

These stone tombs, are placed in the front yard. This is a modern one, made of cement, not from natural stones

Many have also adorned the tombs with tiles - making them look like small houses on the front yard. Well, it is a home for the dead...really...

In the traditional villages, like in Waitabar and Tarung, these tombs are placed in front of the houses that circle around them

In Ratenggaro, Kodi, the tombs are well arranged in rows right by the road that goes into the village

On the beach of Ratenggaro, there were three megalithic tombs - ancient ones belongs to a King, one his first son, the other his second

Megalithic stone tombs right by the road at Waikabubak

This is carved on a natural stone

Interestingly, they also carved a 'congklak' on the stone. It is a traditional toy, played by using beads. Maybe this was made for the deceased to play in heaven, reminder of his or her childhood

Still in Waikabubak - another megalithic stone tombs in someone's yard

The shape of a turtle

Another megalithic tomb at Wegali. This stone carving is very unique to Sumba - a symbolisation from Marapu

Carved stone - the pattern resembles that of batik, I think

In Praigoli, though this resembles a stone tombs, but this is actually not. When the Dutch ruled the island, sometimes they raided the villages and robbed people of their possessions. To protect theirs, the villagers in Praigoli decided to make a fake stone tombs. Inside these tombs, are actually their treasures. They remain unopened till present days.

In Kodi, our guide said that it is OK to prepare for your family's tombs. In other parts of Sumba, that is a taboo. I asked him why the room appears to be so small for a body. He said, according to Marapu's teaching, the deceased will be put in a sitting position, and that is why the space in these tombs is not big.

In Wainyapu, still in Kodi area, we were confused to see these stones carved out of the sand. We were then told that those are ready to use to close the tombs. So the villagers do not just prepare the tombs, they also prepare the stones to cover it. Nowadays there are cars to do it. But imagine in the old days - many people would be needed to pull one stone to the tomb

Pasola – The Feast of the Warriors

Pasola is also related to Marapu belief. 

Bau Nyale ritual, or the arrival of seaworms on the southern shores of Sumba (and also Lombok), is the starting point of pasola. This usually happens in February and March. Post the arrival of these seaworms, Rato or the religious leader, will announce when pasola can be held. So the dates, are never the same though the months stay the same. 

Pasola is originated from the word Sola or Hola which means spears. In this event, there will be two groups of men from different class or tribes, riding their horses, throwing spears to each other. In the past, real spears made of steel were used and people got serious injuries or even killed. Every blood spilled, is believed to fertilise the ground. So pasola, religiously speaking in Marapu’s terms, is also a fertility rite. 

Given the chance that one can be killed or injured, when their men want to join pasola, the clans or tribes are in mutual understanding that if any of them are injured or died, then it is to be accepted. There should be no hard feelings. 

An elderly who we met at Sumba Cultural Centre told us that in the past, joining the tournament of pasola could also be a way to win a girl’s heart. In this tournament, a man got a chance to show his manliness. And if there were two men wanting to win a girl’s heart, the girl could well tell them to ‘fight’ in pasola and she would accept the hands of the winner. It’s always nice to be a woman, don’t you think?. We can order people around! :)
In the modern days, real spears are no longer used. They now use wooden sticks. Still hurt I’d imagine if it hits your skin!. But at least, not dead. 

Given the uncertainty of dates of pasola, we did not really plan this trip to see this festival. Thankfully the universe was very kind to us. When we arrived, the first pasola in Lamboya had just been held. And there were two more during our stay in Sumba. Luck struck indeed. 

Pasola is held in several places at different dates and the majority are held in the western Sumba. So if you wish to go to Sumba to specifically see it, make sure you know where these locations are and when. The trick is, information is usually not available until a week before the event. This can make it rather challenging to arrange for your trip. 

I tried looking at the dates of pasola in 2012 – 2014 to see if there is any pattern. Unfortunately, there does not seem any, which is understandable given the fact that it is related to certain rituals. The best bet, it appears, to plan your trip around the 11ish in February or March, and plan to stay for at least 5 days. Who knows, you may get lucky. 

Getting into the location
Waiting for their turn
Ready to go to battle

Watching pasola gave me the adrenaline rush. To see those men riding into the field on their horses with very simple sadles, with their colourful traditional costumes, their wooden sticks, their screams and shouts, was really something. It did not feel like a game at all, it felt like watching a bunch of warriors ready to go to war and kill the enemy.

And the spectators! – they were such a sight, too. The women screaming, “Aaahhh lililililililililililili aaaaaahhh!!!!”, with such high pitched voice everytime some groups of men faced one another in the middle of the field, throwing their sticks. The men shouting. While chewing and spitting their betel, making red-orange marks on the grass. Standing on stone tombs, on motorcycles, on trucks and cars. All so engrossed in the game. They were really having a ball. 

They came flocking...literally...

In trucks...

With motorcycles. This is a huge affair...
Tombs are used as platforms
These ladies are sooo ready to scream! :D
What amazed me though, with that kind of crowd, we did not experience any shuffles. People were so polite and kind. They saw me with a camera, and immediately, they asked me to move forward and allowed me to sit on the grass, in front of those who have come earlier. I admire them for their high sense of courtesy...they know how to treat a guest. I felt honoured to be around them...

Commenting on the game - such passionate spectators

Horses – the Jewel of Sumba

Sumba, like Sumbawa, was once an important source of horses. They are ‘exported’ to Sulawesi, Java, even Sumatra. But now this trade has died down.

Apart from the local horses which are not too big, in Sumba these local horses are also cross bred with Arab horses. The result is bigger and more ‘macho’ looking horses compared to the local ones.
If in Toraja I was impressed with tedong bonga and tedong saleko, in Sumba I feasted my eyes on these horses. Although, there are more in the eastern Sumba – where these horses live wild and free on the savannahs. 

Later I also found out that Sumba is also an important source of buffaloes, or karambo in local language. And guess where most of them are sent to? – yup, Toraja.

The swimming buffaloes

Pasola location at Lamboya. A stunningly beautiful valley...rows and layers of hills

Ma Tolaka – the Tower House 

Traditional Sumba house is divided into three areas: the lower part, mid and upper. Lower part symbolizes the place for the deads, mid part is for the living, and upper part for the Gods. They do not have a separate ‘kitchen’. It is placed in the middle of the house. To preserve meat, they place some kind of a ‘rack’ right above the stove, so the meat will become smoked meat and can last for months. The upper part of the rack, is where they keep their rice and other food stocks. 

Just like in Toraja, buffaloes are also important parts of a burial ritual. And the more there are displayed in front of your house, the higher your status is. But somehow I did not get the feeling that this is a big deal as it is in Toraja

He was telling me these were the buffaloes sacrificed for his great grandfather

The inside of a traditional Sumba house. This is in Tarung - one of the oldest villages still holding the traditional way of life

A rather 'newer' version of the interior - at Weyengo

Traditionally, no nails should be used to build Ma Tolaka. They use cords made of wood fiber. They should not even use cement as the foundation, everything, has to be built using woods. But with technology also the increasing cost, people now use nails and also use cement as the foundation of the house and to protect the base of the wood from termites

The inner ceiling

all made of wood and bamboo (oh yes...this piece of cloth is a feast to the eyes...)

I love their veranda... We found that houses in Waikabubak have much higher veranda, like this one, compared to those in Kodi area. Not sure if it has any significance... I suspect it is more driven by economy as we felt life was tougher in the villages in Kodi

Where they cook, and above it, where they store their food stock

Just like tongkonan in Toraja, each clan will have a tower house in the village where the parents come from.  What is very interesting is the roof. It is not called a tower house for nothing. The height of the roof symbolizes social status and wealth. Once a house is built with a certain height, NONE of the family member of that clan may build a house with a roof LOWER than the clan’s house. It should either be the same, or best if it can be higher. Building a lower roofed house will disgrace the family. 

The roof is usually made of reed, or alang-alang. But in many villages that we went to, they told us that alang-alang has become scarce and thus, expensive. Hence in many places rather than using alang-alang, they use tin roof.

Sumba Cultural Center - capturing the traditional house of Ma Tolaka


Ratenggaro village - look at the tallest house there. Yup, that means the family is the wealthiest in the village

With the scarcity and increasing price of reed, tin roof is emerging at many villages - this is at Bondo Kawango


I find the decoration on the roof is interesting - those little statues are sometimes in the shape of humans, sometimes monkeys
They are lovely to see

The Lesser Known Beaches, and Layers of Hills  

Going to the eastern part of Indonesia means another thing to me: pristine, clean beaches. And we found them indeed in Sumba. We found them after we went through bushes. We found them from on top of a hill, or at the end of a dirt road. They just, appeared. It did feel that way to me. 

And they are all gorgeous beaches and water. But it is very curious to actually think that when we searched for information about Sumba, there was very little mention (if none at all), about any of these beaches. I wonder if that was intentional (yeah of course not). When I saw them, I somehow wanted to hide them from the rest of the world. I don’t want any hotels to build gates around them. I don’t want another Bali to happen here also. Yet at the same time, I think they deserve to be flaunted for their beauties. 


Boats resting at Pero

We came from that road....and all of a sudden...right in front of us...

Karoso beach

Children playing at Wainyapu

Mandorak beach

Who would not be tempted with such clear water and secluded safe place as if it was made for you

Mandorak from above

This is an interesting natural pool at Waikuri. Water comes from the sea, from holes under those rocks

Waikuri salt water natural pool

Mananga Aba, right where Mario hotel is located

Where you can see BOTH sunrise and sunset, at the opposite side. We could only enjoy the sunrise for the 3 days we stayed there. Each day, a different experience

Rua beach. Originally a harbour was built and this location was supposed to be a center for Western Sumba. Not far from here, lies Nautilus - one of the most expensive resorts in the world. The harbour is here, but already ruined even before it is used. Maybe suddenly the local government realised to make it happen, proper infrastructure inland needed to be built, first

Marosi beach, where I went crazy collecting shells

Shells of Marosi :)

We walked...through bushes.. and over there, a promising view

A rougher walk..

And we came to Oro beach. This is adjacent to Mananga Aba, on the same shore line, but you cannot walk from the beach as there is a cliff separating the two beaches

And of course, there are the savannahs. Western Sumba is greener than its neighboring eastern Sumba. There are no mountains on Sumba, and no volcanoes either. But, unlike Madura which is very flat, Sumba has a very dreamy landscape with its hills far and away, layer after layer. At some parts, I can’t help being reminded of the landscape of Scotland. The difference is, one is very cold, the other is the exact opposite. Having said that, Sumba has very interesting climate: it is very hot during the day, but in the afternoon, it is very cool and can be quite cold at night. Maybe it was also because we came in February – still in the rainy season. Still, experiencing the scorching heat during the day then feeling the cooling breeze in the afternoon, is very pleasant. 

Padi fields at Waikabubak. This is right across Monalisa Cottages

The green hills

At a point at Wanokaka

Lamboya - the view from this place is breathtaking. Sitting here enjoying the afternoon breeze. I did not want to go back to noisy Jakarta!

Still at Lamboya - people working in the padi fields in the afternoon, perhaps avoiding the scorching hot sun before that

Water comes out from this hill

With a view to die for

Loving the trip on this less developed island. There were instances where I thought about the irony: the richness of culture and sceneries, yet people seem to have a difficult life. But then, that is exactly what Indonesia is all about: it is a land of contrasts, in many possible forms.  

Note about the trip:

We only went to western Sumba. To get here, you must take the flight from Denpasar to Tambolaka.
In Sumba, we hired a guide and driver from Sumba Adventure (contact: Philip, sumbaadventure@yahoo.com). 

I am not sure if we would survive without a guide and driver because there are just no signs anywhere of where every place is. If you have plenty of time, then maybe you can just hire a car or a motorcycle and find your way around – for the fun and adventure of it. But if you are short of it, I suggest that you get a driver and guide. It is IDR 1,000,000/day for driver, guide and gasoline. So I would suggest you come with friends so you can share that cost. 

We first stayed in Monalisa Cottages (mamoli@monalisacottages-sumba.com) in Waikabubak – 1  hour from Tambolaka, thinking that this was a closer location to the places that we wanted to go. Turned out that our driver and guide were based near Tambolaka, so it was quite a hassle for them to pick us up to Waikabubak. 

The view from Monalisa cottages

Monalisa cottages seen from the padi fields :)

We then moved to Mario Hotel (http://www.mariohotel.net/), at Mananga Aba beach. A very nice place in a nice location. The rate is IDR 550,000/night. And for its location, I would say that’s a great price. It is a bit far off from Waitabula which is the city center, but not that difficult to reach (though you have to go through unpaved, dirt, road).

There is another hotel: Sinar Tambolaka (http://www.sinartambolaka.com/) at Waitabula. You can enjoy a nice, cool, afternoon at this hotel as there are hills behind it. And I think with a clear sky, it gives a great sunset over the hill that you can enjoy from its roof top restaurant. The rates here are more varied – so there are plenty of options to choose from. 

The view to the hills from the roof top restaurant of Sinar Tambolaka hotel

It must be nice enjoying the view, sipping coffee from this place

Funny enough, there was no specific food of Sumba that we could try here!. The influence of Bali and Java are quite strong, which is quite interesting to notice. We went to the local market and found local produce, but when we tried looking for the dishes made of those, there was no result. 

This was at 4pm, and the fresh market at Waikabubak is still open. It's a delight to see the fresh produce. That big cucumber-like thing, is said to be some kind of local pumpkin. they look delish...

Fresh fish...of course, is everywhere

This I was so curious how this taste like when cooked. This is some kind of sea grass. The lady said people usually stir fry this. But no where could we find this in any restaurants. Maybe I should have asked someone to cook it for me

There are good restaurants in Waitabula: Warungku – a range of Indonesian food, and ‘Gula dan Garam’ – a range of Indonesian as well as Western food. You should always ask for Sumba coffee – it is good: light tasting, little to no acidity, a little burnt aroma. But, it won’t keep you awake at night either so if you intend to drink it for the purpose of waking up till late, then Sumba coffee may not help you. 

If you go further out, then it is always best to buy ‘nasi kotak’ (or boxed rice with various side dishes) from whatever restaurants you can find in either Waikabubak if you pass it, or Waitabula. Restaurants, even small warungs, are not to be found easily. In pasola areas they will have food stands – but most of them are local bakso (meat balls) and noodles. And if you’re like me who is never keen on eating something hot in hot weather, then bring your own food. 

If you are used to places like Bali, Yogya, and other more developed destinations, then Sumba may surprise you. Prepare yourself, and wear a more adventurous cap. But I can assure you it is a delightful experience – though you may need to adjust with having to pee in the middle of a bush at many places, or eating in the middle of the road. In life, I believe we all need to go to the very basic from time to time. 

We stopped here for lunch - for the shade, and for the stunning view for dessert :)

No cars passing through - so it's a safe place to stop :)

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