06 June 2012

From Larantuka to Ile Ape - Lembata

By ERIC ROSE, Switzerland

From Larantuka we took a ferry to Lembata, a small island in far eastern Indonesian archipelago. On the way we passed smoking volcanoes rising awesomely from the sea. A group of adolescents on the ferry were excited to be with tourists that could speak Indonesian. They tweaked our noses and asked us jokingly if we would like to trade skin colors.

Everyone wanted our light skin and “sharp” noses. Lewoleba, the main town on Lembata, was blisteringly hot during the day but surprisingly chilly at night. Bright red and yellow cashew fruit was on sale at the small market outside of town. The central market had recently burned down. All that was left were a few charred bamboo poles.

We soon set out to visit some traditional ikat-weaving villages and to climb a nearby volcano: ILE APE. After a bumpy bemo ride along a rutted dirt track we stopped at the first village, wandered around until we found someone weaving and watched as they worked, explaining the process to us. We drank coffee, chatted and sampled the local delicacy: “jagung titi”, or smashed popcorn.

The kernels are first cooked over a fire in a clay pot until they pop, then smashed with a flat rock. It doesn't sound like much, but it tasted surprisingly good. The villagers, especially the village headman, were so friendly that we were reluctant to leave.

We wanted to climb the volcano the following day, so we continued to the next village, where we knew that we could find a guide. Unfortunately, when we arrived we discovered that people were not as welcoming as at the previous place. They seemed more used to tourists. The prices to climb the volcano were far above what it was worth, so, to their surprise, we turned them down.

There was a festival in a neighboring village the next day, so we decided to stay. It was sweltering hot at night and the only thing we had to drink was salty well water, drawn at dusk by casting plastic bottles on strings into the deep well in the center of the village.

There were no other sources of fresh water other than a few remaining bottles of mineral water in the local kiosk that we quickly purchased and drank. On this part of the island, in the shadow of Ile Ape, only corn, tubers and a few scraggly vegetables can grow. Weaving provides reliable income.

Traditionally, a woman is expected to make her wedding sarong completely from scratch: grow the cotton, comb, prepare and spin into thread, then string it on the loom, create the “ikat” patterns by tying off sections, dye it over and over again, and then, finally, weave the material. Years of intermittent work are required to make one piece.

We asked the women to show us their “adat” (traditional) wedding sarongs. The colors, although dull in the strong sunlight, were natural and earthy. The patterns were interesting and complex. Once we had seen these traditional works of art, the sarongs sold in the tourist shops, with their gaudy colors and monotonous patterns, ceased to hold our interest.

The next morning, rising early, we wandered into the hills before it became too hot. We found the old village, famous for its annual bean festival, and stopped for a taste of “arak”, or distilled palm wine, from an elderly farmer. The sea, dark blue with crests of white, stood out from the parched, brown hillside under the blazing sun. We walked down the slope, getting lost in the dry, scruffy palm trees and dense undergrowth.

Almost a hundred years ago, a man had killed another man from the neighboring village, starting a feud. Eventually, peace was made. In order to maintain that peace, a small ceremony was held every few years. The “dukun”, or witch doctor, presided over the peacemaking ritual.

A young man from each village, chosen to play a symbolic role, offered their right hands to be bound together. The dukun waved a pair of green coconuts, two live chickens, two of this and two of that in turn over the clasped hands before pulling them right and left, then unclasping them over a small pile of cotton and flowers. All the while, children cracked homemade noisemakers.

After the ceremony everyone sat down to eat a special meal and drink “tuak”, or palm wine. After chatting for a while with the locals and taking some pictures, we returned along the dirt track to the weaving village we had visited the day before.

The village headman was in the church for choir practice when we arrived. He rushed home, excited to have guests. Dinner was simple: rice, boiled vegetables, fresh tomatoes, instant noodles and fried peanuts. The whole family was at the table: the village head, his wife, sister and mother. It was the first time we had eaten a meal together with a family in Indonesia.

Before eating, he turned to Eric and asked him to say grace in “our” language. Eric managed to compose a short speech in English. The village chief then turned and said grace in his way, intoning reverently as he bent deeply over his clasped hands.

Breaking into a huge grin, he began loading his plate with an immense pile of rice. His mug, twice as large as the others, was filled to the brim with sweet rainwater from their cistern. We gulped down large quantities of sweet water ourselves and talked with them about Indonesia and Switzerland.

They couldn't believe that we didn't have rice, bananas or coconuts growing at home. What did we eat, then? It was hard to describe how we lived on bread, potatoes and pasta. When asked how the village head was elected, they told us that every adult in the village was given a kernel of corn to be cast in vote by putting it into a cup with the candidate's name written on it.

It was a long, hot night. The sweltering heat was barely stirred by a slight breeze from the ocean. It was quiet and dark. Early in the morning we were awakened by the sound of smashing popcorn from behind the house. One of the ladies had risen at 4am to prepare this special snack for us to take with us back to Lewoleba.

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