Sumba Island – general views and thoughts

Feb 16, 2020

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If your idea of Indonesia is Bali, prepare for a totally different one, when visiting Sumba Island. People, sometimes, call it “primitive” which I cannot agree, as both societies coexist at the same time, often, in Sumba, you get better 4G coverage than in Bali. “Undeveloped” may work, if you consider “development” as equivalent to capitalism.

Below: Ratenggaro village, in West Sumba – one of the few, preserving their original alang-alang roofs, over corrugated zinc sheets; also some scenes from a nearby village.

Sumba is an excellent case study to prove that philosophic / historic materialism is just a nonsense. Weather, topography, geographic position, all are not so different from Bali. Ethnicity is, as it’s still the result of  Melanesian and Austronesian colonisations, and doesn’t have the Javanese and Chinese influences, present in Bali.

Smiling school children near Waikabubak, South Sumba

That results in a different spirituality and religion. Bali has it’s own religion, fitting on the never-ending possibilities of Hinduism. Sumba has, originally, Marapu, which is a sort of animism mixed with belief in “eternal-life” and some sort of “heaven” and “in-betweens”.  (This summary is, of course incorrect as tries to put their beliefs into western concepts, but was the best I could do for a single sentence).

Young woman weaving and chewing Beetle Nut, in Rattengaro.

Dutch domination, and previous Portuguese trade left some traits of Christianity, both in forms of Catholic and Protestant churches.  Those were accepted and mixed with Marapu, as the after-life concepts were not so distant.

Ethnicity, maybe, explains, the Sumbanese propensity for stimulants. Coffee is always strong, cigarettes have unbelievable levels of nicotine (thing about one equivalent to two or three European ones). Petchi (local spirit, similar to the Balinese arak) is drank copiously, either pure or mixed with Bintang beer. Beetle nut is daily consumed, offered for every guest upon arrival. In fact, it’s probably the most seen item in any local market, and it is, somehow, sad do see some, otherwise, beautiful women, disfigured, from constantly chewing it. Dog meat is a favourite, often extremely spicy, and also produces a body reaction similar to a mild fever.

Below: dog market in Waikabubak.

Stimulants go along with violence. Sumbanese tribes were head-hunters, three generations ago. Some enemy’s skulls, can still be seen on remote locations. Once I asked some Sumbanese men, the reason for constant wars among tribes, not so long ago. The answer was simple: To prove their value! This “courage” or “value”, seems to be the main purpose of life – the festivals exist for that same reason.

Below: pig jaws and buffalo skulls on display on a traditional Sumbanese house. These are the memories of past ceremonies and funerals and records of the animals being offered from other families. When the house family is invited to another one’s ceremony, must requite accordingly.

The Sumbanese love horses, mainly for horse-racing. Betting exists, but’s totally different from the Balinese, who bet on cockfighting. They love to ride and race!  Then, the Pasola (watch the whole footage in here): a staged combat between tribes. Wooden tipped spears are now used but, no long ago, they had steel tips and blood was shed. It was auspicious for the future crops, if that happened. Sumba boxing is also an important event (watch the images in here)- a way to solve unsettled disputes between tribes or people.

Both usually end in riots, where police uses either water cannons or even their guns to try and re-establish peace.

I remember once, the boathouse bartender came to work, crying. I asked what happened and the answer was: My brother… Died. As I enquired for the reason, it was: He stole a goat! – meaning, the owner found it and killed him, most likely with a parang (short sword). That was far from unique. A nurse with whom I was working, related many cases of deep wounds inflicted by parangs she often treated.

Taking the buffaloes for an afternoon swim.

Stealing is not as frown upon as in Bali – people must constantly guard their cattle, specially buffaloes from being stolen.

These later, are specially prized for their horns. The bigger, the most value, and people need them to offer them to be slaughtered in funerals. They keep a mental record of which size and by whom the each buffalo was offered, and there will surely be a retribution, one day. People can get in serious debt or even bankruptcy, on account of that.

However, milking the buffaloes is out of question. Once I asked the former owner of the resort I was working, for: Why, didn’t you try to make mozzarella cheese, with so many buffaloes around? You could use it for pizzas, at the resort, and even export to Bali, as it would certainly be cheaper that bringing from Italy.

I don’t remember the exact words of his answer, but the overall meaning was that it was tried, as an experience, but people thought their were crazy for milking the buffaloes and didn’t join the project. They can be highly in debt but still they won’t change their views and routine.

They would gather, sometimes 300 people to carry a 20 ton stone to a village square for a funeral, but they wouldn’t milk their buffaloes.

Same with fishing. Most people don’t care about beaches, swimming, fishing… It’s awkward for me, as I belong from a country of sailors and fishermen in far more challenging waters.

Having said so, most of the Sumbanese I knew (despite on most cases, verbal communication not being so great), were good-hearted, loyal, reliable people. It was far easier to get invited to a party or a family celebration than in Bali – not to say the Balinese, aren’t hospitable! Indeed, they are, but I found Sumbanese society to be far more open.

Below: market in Waikabubak

They are fine jewellers, produce nice fabric, and host some of Indonesia’s most spectacular views, so it is absolutely worth it to visit Sumba, but don’t make it a short stay, as it takes some time for the energy to be felt.

Pantai Mandorak, not west Sumba. Unexplored, crystalline waters, waiting for the next visitant.

Below: Matayangu (Blue Waterfall)

Below: Lapopu waterfall. There was a recent rockslide, which made it close, temporarily. It’s already open, but may differ from the shots.

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