Friday, August 28, 2009

Stories From Sumba

I learned that Germans kiss each other’s cheeks to say goodbye. Javanese do that too but a bit different. They’d do a ‘nose’ kiss on each other’s cheeks to say hello... and then there’s the Sumbanese. they literally ‘flick’ each others, nose to nose to say ‘hello’. Simon and I stood in half bewilderment and half amused when we saw our Sumbanese friend and guide, Yubi demonstrate this to us. I thought to myself, “Who’s the creative chum that come up with that?”. I guess I always knew that I’m in for a cultural treat.

The most interesting topic to talk about Sumba is, of course its tradition. Sure we’re driving around the place using a modern transportation vehicle like a car or a motorbike. But when we visited the traditional village, I feel like I’ve gone back thousands of years before my time and witnessed the real deal. Well... it’s either that or I feel like I’m a 60’s Hollywood movie set.

Yubi took us for a day trip to West Sumba to visit some of these villages. It took us 3-4 hours for us to get to West Sumba from the East. The main city in West Sumba is called Waikabubak. ‘Wai’ meaning water and ‘bubak’ meaning bubbling. I’m guessing it must means bubbling spring water. The main city in East Sumba where we were staying is called “Waingapu” but I never did find out what “Gapu” means. Sounds like “Garpu” which is ‘fork’ in Indonesian, but "Water fork" wouldn’t make any sense, so I guess not.

These traditional villages can be found in most places, but the most interesting one is the one that sits on top of a hill, in the middle of a ‘modern’ city. It is really bizarre how these people prefer to stick to their traditional way of living when everyone around them have changed.

Though... we found satellites sitting next to some of the traditional houses... gotta love that twist!

So, what’s up with the shape of the house? The shape of the house symbolizes 3 things, lower life (hell), the present world, and the heavenly life. They usually keep their animals in the lower part of the house, the people live in the middle of the house, and they keep their idols at the upper part of their house.... I can't help but wonder what its like to sleep above your pet goats or pigs....

We managed to go inside one of the house. It was very interesting and surprisingly cozy. It’s made entirely of bamboo and they actually have room dividers for the bedroom. The kitchen is a simple stove in the middle of the house. They keep their rice in huge barrels just behind the front door.
Traditional Marapu people bury their relatives around their houses.... hence the many block of stones outside their houses. Marapu people believe that their relatives spirit still lingers around the area. The more elaborate the grave is, the more respectable the person was. I found it funny how some of these people still dry out their laundry on these tomb stones. Also, when I was on the site, I forgot how odd it was to be standing in the middle of these graves.

The grave in this photo here obviously belong to some important's HUGE!

Some of the marapu women activities is to make handmade items. Such as this woman, she is making a cloth using the ‘tying’ technique using this traditional machine there. And there was also another lady is making little ‘boxes’ from janur which is young coconut leaves.

We drove to a beach after we visited Waikabubak. Though we didn’t stay there for long because we were getting eaten by sandflies the second we got out of the car. I didn’t even get to soak my feet in the water! But from what I can see it was a nice beach if only the sandflies weren’t there. If you like taking pictures, Sumba has got so many breathtaking landscapes. We saw so many good views as we were driving along.

There's a story that along this beach somewhere, a group of Sumbanese tribe had to move a large sacred stone from one place to another. They tied the giant sacred rock with special rope and dragged it across the beach to get to their destination. One day the special rope snapped. I can’t be sure why, but limited in their beliefs and tradition, they cant use just any other rope to drag the stone away. The only solution was to plant some cotton, wait for it to grow, harvest it, spin it into a rope, and continue dragging the rock again. I think this story is so ridiculous it's funny.

The previous day, Simon had the opportunity to explore more of Sumba while I stayed in the hotel because I was suffering on leg cramp and some crazy itch.
Simon visited kampung raja which literally mean “King’s village” in East Sumba. When we were there, the king had been deceased for awhile. We don’t know exactly how long, but the body is still sitting there inside the house. When a king passed away in Sumba, they will keep the body inside a house for one year. In that one year, they will sacrifice animals like, a chicken or a pig every night before the king is buried in his tombstone for the following year. His servants would sleep in the same room as the body for security reasons. The term ‘servant’ in this village is different to a slave. When someone becomes a king in this village, he is responsible for the well-being of everyone, including the servants. I guess that’s why a king is so respected here. He’s probably isn’t that rich either.

Another interesting story is that as soon as a king died, they will also have to kill his horse. They believe that the spirit of the king will need to ride the horse to go to heaven or something like that. So, what happen to everyone else when they die? Well... I guess they just have to walk... or hitchhike to get to heaven. Though, I don’t think they do this type of ceremony anymore.

Simon also visited a very poor family that lives on the hills. They are so poor the kids had to walk around half an hour away from their house to collect water from the well. The father’s job is to collect dry grass around the field. When Simon came back to show me the photos, he told me a sad story about this family.

One of the daughter had reached middle school and the school is too far away to walk so she needs to get a driver to get there. However, the family didn’t have enough money to pay for the transport. A driver offered the family her transport if only she would sleep with him. Desperate for her to gain higher education, the family agrees and gave her away. I don’t know if she finished school or not, but she ended up getting pregnant and giving birth to a child, so I guess not. The driver guy just disappeared. I felt very heart broken when I heard this. I wasn’t there to see the family, but the house must be so full of kids, and by the looks of the photo, no one really seem to be upset. I guess they will never be lonely.

Our second night in Sumba, we got invited by ibu Sari, for dinner. She is Yubi’s sister in law. We had such a good night and learned a lot about Sumba’s culture. She told us that having a a foster child in Sumba is normal. She’s got several children living in her house. Though, these foster children are related to her and she took care of them because their parents can’t. Her family pays for their education and therefore giving them hope for the future. They didn’t join us for dinner though, they were serving us dinner so I guess they had to do some service for her by living in the house.

Another interesting cultural aspect in Sumba is that the relationship between uncles/aunts and their niece is supposed to be closer than the relationship between the kids and their own parents. Say, when they kids are growing up and are making life decisions such as, what to study at uni, who to marry, what to do for a living, etc, their aunts and uncles are the ones who will have to approve, and their parents are not allowed to disagree. Also, regarding marriage, when a person is getting married before a sibling that is older than him/her, that person will have to ask permission from the oldest sibling if he/she can get married earlier than them. If they approve, then go ahead, but if they don’t, they’ll have to wait until the oldest person get married.

So, Simon and I left Sumba after spending 3 nights/days there. While I was there, I got bitten by some sort of evil flea that gives me unbearable itch all over my body. It wouldn’t go away no matter what I do. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it and I know it will disappear as soon as I leave Sumba. Yubi is worried that I will never go back to Sumba because of this. And up till now, I think Simon still feels bad about ‘dragging’ me there. But even when I was suffering those itch, I didn’t really mind. When I woke up in the middle of the night because it really hurts, I just prayed and will eventually go back to sleep without fail. I knew that in a larger scheme of things, stuff like this wouldn’t matter much, because the trip was very memorable. At least I know that the next time I go back there, I will have to bring my own sleeping bag and an endless supply of insect repellent.

I guess Africa must be next on the line for Simon....

Have a look at my facebook photo album for more photos and other smaller stories of Sumba:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Our First Day in Sumba EVER!

On the 20th of July, Simon and I said our goodbyes to Daniel in Bali and flew to a remote island that is around 2 hours South East of Bali. Daniel had taken the plane over to Jakarta to fly back home to Sydney. I wouldn’t have a slightest idea of why I would follow Simon to Sumba if he didn’t ask me. I mean, who WOULD go there?! (Exception to Western surfers fanatics) For Simon, his reason to go there is to visit Yubi, a friend he met in his church back in Canberra. I decided to go with Simon when he convinced me in an email saying, "I just saw photos of Sumba! I love Sumba!" ... and I thought "Oh? Already?!"

I couldn’t believe how much hassle we had to go through to book our ticket to Sumba. It’s so remote that most travel agents in Jakarta couldn’t be bothered ringing me back about the ticket! Though, it turns out to be a pleasant flight from Bali to Sumba, except the plane is really old and the landing was scarily ‘creative’. When we were above the island, we can see the landscape clearly from above. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen or imagined! The land is red-ish and dry with patches of trees here and there. The top of the hills are flat, and there’s so many of it that I’m not entirely sure if the hills are the actual surface and the gullys are well... giant cracks of the dry high land. In between the narrow deep gully's, they've planted a lot of rice which made it look very green in contrast to the red dry hills. Simon and I looked down at the mysterious and odd landscape below us in silence, slightly confused.

“Fionna... where are we?”
“I’m not so sure... but it looks like Africa.”

I knew it then and there Simon had fallen in love with this island... He is, afterall, is head over heels with Africa... Uganda to be specific.

Yes, Sumba is remote and poor. I didn’t see any building that is more than 2 stories high and there are just villages everywhere. Some of the buildings are modern made of cement concrete but a lot of traditional houses also still exist.

We landed on Sumba’s airport in the afternoon. Needless to say why you can tell by this photo that the airport is so marveously simple. Thats the way we like it! :p

Our friend Yubi picked us up from the airport with her brother. Before we even managed to go check into the hotel, we went over to the horse race first. Sumba people are obsessed with this sport. The horse are different in a way that they are smaller and therefore the jockey has to be extremely light. The jockeys are normally self taught boys of the age 4 – 11 years old

Some people who saw this photo would respond "Wow, they've got coke there!" Yes, they sure do! ( I'd like to take my hat off to Coke's amazing marketing team for this) Though it would be handy for that lady to have a stand than just selling on the audiences seats!

After we checked in to the hotel, Yubi took us to a church who had recently partnered up with the Compassion project. When the car pulled up in front of the church, Simon and I were a bit shocked as how someone had just decided to cut off half of the hill where the church is sitting on! I asked the pastor of that church about that and he said that they wanted to move the church on the flat surface so that older people don’t have to climb up the hill in order to go to church. Though, it's a bit worrying how they cut the hill off so close to the actual building.

Many of the children in this project are not sponsored yet, and because the area is so poor, a lot of these kids aren’t Christians either. A lot of them are still followers of the traditional belief of ‘Marapu’ and even one of the child is a Muslim. It was a very unusual feeling sitting inside the church listening to them mumbling Christian songs and praying with us.

After visiting the Compassion project, Yubi took Simon and I to a Bible study group. It was a really good experience for me as at the end of the study, I get to hear testimonies from people around my age who really doesn’t have much, but are happy. I dare say that they are even happier than me! There was this girl who expressed how grateful she is to be doing a job that she loves, a guy who quit his job as a room service in a hotel in Bali but now is content with whatever God had given him, and a young lecturer who is content with the little pay he receives. It made me realize the stronger power of happiness that is based on righteousness against happiness that is based on materialism. Sure it’s not easy to be poor, but it doesn’t stop these people do good things, happy and content! It must take a hell of a lot of faith and contentment to be able to live with nothing and yet have everything!

We left the little house where the Bible study's at and Yubi took us to the local radio station where she plans a session for us to talk about Compassion project. Simon and I were pretty nervous, but for me, being exhausted kindda helped me with the stage fright. I thought Simon wasn’t scared as he’s been on air to talk about Compassion several times in Canberra, but I guess being pressured to talk Indonesian would be a good reason to be nervous. I ended up doing a lot of the talking and answering questions about the project. My mind was pitch black the second I heard my own voice on the headphones. It’s just one of those moment when you know so much about stuff but loose it all when being put on the spotlight.

I’m not really sure how I got through. Yubi and Simon made it easier for me as they are very relaxed about the whole thing. We had an amazing response from the listeners that night. We received many sms and phone calls in our 2 hour session. I’m SO encouraged to see how so many people took their time to tell us that they are excited, honoured, proud and appreciative to have Simon, who came all the way from Australia to visit Sumba and to hear about what Compassion is doing for the community. I’m so honored to have the opportunity to talk about Compassion that night. I believe that we managed to save some kids that night through the radio program.

To learn more about Compassion, please visit: You might as well go and sponsor a child or 2 while you're at it! :p