Sumba - Sumba - a remote Indonesian island.
Sumba - ancestral villages and much more
Sumba. It’s a place the daughter and I have always wanted to visit. Now we have time to indulge ourselves, to step back in time and explore.
This Indonesian island, a part of the East Nusa Tenggara chain, lies south of Flores and south west of Timor.
It’s an island that has mostly escaped tourism. The Dutch colonialists didn’t arrive here until early in the 20th century and don’t appear to have had much impact. Back then it was known as Sandalwood Island, for the precious wood valued largely for its fragrance, woodworking and suggested medicinal qualities.
Sumba was so isolated that when independence was declared on 17th August 1945, it took six months for the news to reach Sumba. Or so the story goes.
We leave from Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar, Bali and land with a thud at Waingapu, East Sumba’s tiny Mau Hau airstrip. We collect our luggage and lazily look around. We took to long. The only transport available to the town and accommodation is by motorbike. Not my usual style.
And so I find myself clinging on to my hat, my camera and a stranger. My backpack is precariously balanced. The daughter is somewhere behind. I briefly wonder if I’ll see her again and if my travel insurance covers trauma and disappearance.
We find room at the Sandalwood Hotel and move in.
I’m huffy at first. It’s near the road listening to the constant motorbike roar. But you soon become accustomed to it. Hawkers sit on and around our doorstep chatting and laughing. Yes, you become accustomed to that too.
It’s basic but welcoming - a large room and the air con works. The bedding is clean. Our own mandi – a tub of cold water with a container to allow you to throw water all over yourself. I love mandis, so refreshing. Pink silky curtains. Wooden furniture.
The staff are kind and helpful, such friendly people. They cheerfully bring breakfast down to our room - hot sweet tea and toast. Delicious with bananas..
Then a hitch, we are informed many roads are impassible. We ditch the backpacking notion and instead opt to hire a car and driver to cover both east and west Sumba from our base in Waingapu. A car and driver materialize at little price.
The island and Horses
It's almost like there are two Sumbas – the terrain and climate are so diverse. East Sumba is dry, the west fertile and tropical. Everywhere has evidence of farming, cattle, buffalo, goats, pigs.
Indonesia’s famous sandalwood horses roam everywhere. These horses bred in Sumba are said to be the strongest in Indonesia and are exported to other islands.
The island and horsesHorses are also symbolic of wealth and status, used for dowries and appear as tomb decorations. They are worshipped in statues and, in the past, were sacrificed to accompany the dead to the next world.
Ikat is the local hand weaving process and once again horses are often depicted.
Waingapu is a dusty little town, bustling with Bemos – a small vehicle used to transport passengers and everything else you can think of, shopping, chickens, goats - pile them on. Motorbikes are plentiful, becaks and an odd assortment of vehicles. There’s a big bustling market and not much else.
It’s difficult to maneuver when walking, especially on a dark night – if you value your ankles watch out for the large holes in the roads and pavements.
Our first quest is visiting ancestral villages. We’re advised at the hotel to take betel nut as our offering.
The customary use of the areca nut known as betel chewing is clearly evident and – who knows? - may help along the happiness. The dried nut is a stimulant and an astringent. It’s also purported to have medicinal value and may be considered useful for headaches, stomach upsets, fevers and as a breath freshener.
The preparation of the betel chewing procedure is an art form. A small personal cane betel bag holds the areca nut, betel leaves and limes. It’s debatable whether it’s the nuts or lime that are responsible for so many rotted teeth.
Mouths and lips turn crimson from the juice of the nut. Elderly women smile with stained bright red teeth. Little wonder early European explorers thought they all suffered from tuberculosis!
Chewing increases the saliva and it is customary to spit out brilliant red sputum. Sound disgusting? It’s the eye of the beholder. When tourists call into villages inappropriately dressed, with lashings of uncovered flesh, these tolerant people are seriously distressed.
The Ancestral Villages
There are many villages. Rende, Mangili,Tarung are all very much dedicated to the ancestors, all operating today as they have for centuries. These villages are not tourist venues although they will welcome you and are usually very hospitable.
As we enter the first village a ceremony takes place. A bamboo mat is unrolled for us to sit on. We are offered betel nut in a container woven from dried plaited leaves. This is our welcome. It’s appropriate to accept a small piece but not necessary to chew it.
We then present our own offering. We may now stroll around their village, take photos, talk to the locals. At some villages a visitor’s book is presented to sign and add a few rupiahs.
Marapu, a form of ancestral religion is clearly respected. Traditional Sumbanese houses are built with pyramid shaped roofs, with a wooden beam at each end to allow the ancestral spirits to enter the house.
The four main posts supporting the houses, the intricate carvings and sculptures are all closely associated with ancestor worship.
Impressive megalithic tombs are made from hard stone and built in front of the houses. Massive rocks, some weighing as much as 70 tons have somehow been hauled across the countryside by hand.
The Sumbanese People
In the villages life continues as it has for centuries.Elderly women are highly respected in the community and fiercely proud of their heritage. Protective of tribal rites and family, a harsh lifetime is etched on their faces. No botox here.
Laughter is never far away though, echoing from the children playing to the rest of the community.
In the towns we are welcomed; if we’re lost people will cheerfully accompany us to show the way.
The hawkers are now our friends, our guides - they enthrall us with stories of their island, their lives, their families, their dreams. Every morning they arrive around seven am – cheerful and ready for the day. They laugh; talk, until around 8pm. We share tea and biscuits and enjoy the company. With so few tourists around I don’t know how they make enough money to survive.
Nihiwatu Resort - a Surfing Paradise
At first Sumba seems an unlikely place to find one of the five best eco-hotels in the world. Nihiwatu Resort is just that, a paradise offering serenity and world famous surfing. The venture has proved beneficial to many of the people Sumba providing employment and community based projects.
Food, is sourced locally, produce organically grown, fuel is produced through harvested coconut flesh, chicken is farmed and the resort is self sufficient in fresh fish.
Here’s nature at it’s best, 560 acres of unspoiled land, visitors stay in villas of exceptional exclusivity, all activities expertly crafted towards a personal approach for guests.
Surfing is the highest of priorities, Nihiwatu offers access to one of the world’s best left-hand break waves. Add to this diving and world-class sport fishing.
The philosophy of the resort is to dedicate profits towards the Sumba Foundation.
For many people of Sumba availability to water is a problem. In the dry season when streams dry up dependence on wells is necessary. Many people have to travel several miles to access daily water.
The Sumba Foundation has been active in raising awareness and sponsorship. To help reduce poverty the Foundation are responsible for supplying many schools with water and sanitation.
The Foundation has set up 15 primary schools and five clinics, 172 villages have clean water and 48 water wells have been established. With more to come.
The Wave has always remained central to Nihwatu’s story, the famous left-hand break attracts surfers from all over the world.
What a wonderful contribution to the island and the beautiful people of Sumba.
West Sumba traditional music
The Pasola Festival
In Feb/March Sumba has a festival named Pasola, a unique Sumbanese event not staged for tourists. It’s a simulated war game; a tournament played by dozens of men on horse back. Horse riders use no saddles or stirrups and are armed with wooden spears.
The name of the game is to knock one’s opponent off his horse with a wooden spear. The spears represent different villages. Spears are not sharpened but they are potentially dangerous and injuries and deaths are not unknown.
I cannot give you exact dates for the Pasola. This is determined by the full moon and the arrival of nyale, or beach worms. After this the date is announced by a local official.
Sumba is a little visited and a fascinating outpost in Indonesia’s southeast island chain. Anyone visiting will be impressed by the warmth and charm of wonderful people.