If you’ve got a sharp eye for funky tribal architecture and you happened to see our recent post on the back roads of Sumba, then you probably noticed that shot of Thomas fording the river backed by a series of unbelievably vertical thatched huts. That was Ratenggaro, perhaps the most stunning village in the entire Kodi tribal region (and perhaps all of Sumba).
Kodi is Sumba at its best, a region of superlatives. The huts are taller, the villages more traditional, the tombs a bit grander, the beaches more sweeping, the sculpture a little more plentiful… Kodi is simply awesome.
Discovering places like Rantenggaro is why we travel. Every time we start to get a bit jaded, we run across a truly incredible location like this which reminds us that – even in the 21st century – there are still discoveries to be made. The small headlands just west of Ratenggaro featuring half a dozen unique stone tombs is pure magic. Looking back at the huts perched perilously on the river-side cliff, the village feels like a surreal figment of – well – my imagination. This is precisely the kind of location I dream of finding, but rarely do.
But equally impressive Wainyapu lies just over the large river which winds its way out of the palms and empties into the waves behind us. Vast stretches of deserted golden sand sweep both north and south of the isolated villages. Not a tourist in sight. No stores or stalls or tourist paraphernalia. No high-rises or towers. Just a living National Geographic moment in all its uncropped glory. These locations are all but gone in most of the world.
As with many villages in Sumba, entering is far more awkward than in other parts of Nusa Tenggara. Adults stare at us suspiciously. Children dance around us excited by our visit. Breaking all the rules we believe in, we have no choice but to pass out cigarettes to some of the men. Tribute is a requirement at each Sumbanese village whether you agree with it, or not. In addition, village elders ask for a cash donation signaling what we already know: While these villages appear completely isolated, they are two of the more frequently visited locations in western Sumba (although the guestbook reveals that “frequently visited” might be a bit of an overstatement.) After signing the guestbook and offering a few more cigarettes, tensions relax and we are invited into some of the high houses.
The interiors of the huge huts vary from quite simple to elaborately carved. In some of the houses, the occupants display large numbers of pig jaws. The hut layouts appear strangely unlivable and quite impractical when compared to other traditional communities we have visited. Many of the huts seem to be abandoned. When we ask why, we discover that many villagers have left Ratenggaro and neighboring Wainyapu to look for work in Waikabubak and Waingapu. Oddly, while some huts lie empty, villagers appear to be constructing new huts.
Particularly in Wainyapu, the forest of vertical thatched huts is carpeted with tombs and spirit stones (kateda) used for offerings. At times, these stone constructions seem to be almost piled on top of each other. Dogs and pigs wander through the tombs hunting for scraps of food. It’s definitely the quintessential tribal village scene.
Interestingly, despite the conservative influences of Christianity and Islam, many of the women in Rantenggaro and Wainyapu still go topless wearing only traditional ikat or cheaper sarongs. Somehow, I find that quite surprising considering the two villages are situated on the coast. (In Indonesia, such traditions are usually more easily maintained in more hidden inland regions.) Men and younger villagers seem to be quickly adopting western clothing, although many people wear ikats over western clothing and most men still carry swords.
But make no mistake about it, traditional beliefs are still strong in Sumba, especially here in Kodi. When travelers see this transition from traditional ikat to western clothing, they often mistakenly think that this clothing is synonymous with western thinking. It really isn’t. One upcoming post will reveal just how much Sumbanese can misinterpret Western behaviors, motivations, and technologies. It will definitely make you think twice the next time you pull out your camera.