Exploring The Tribal Villages of Sumba
Tribal western Sumba is without question one of the most fascinating cultural regions in all of Indonesia. Eclipsed by more famous destinations such as Papua, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Flores, remote Sumba is primarily visited by travelers with a keen interest in ethno-tourism. Way off the beaten path – or any path for that matter – you don’t just end up here by mistake; you come here specifically to take in the unique Sumbanese tribal art, architecture and cultural heritage.
Sumba is a tough place to travel: there are few hotels, roads can be terrible, English is non-existent and the tribal communities can be somewhat volatile. Conflicts can break out at any time, even in the larger population centers such as Waikabubak. In fact, on our way to dinner one evening in Waikabubak, we were turned back because a battle had broken out between two villages and mere meters ahead people were hacking each other to death with their swords. This ain’t Disneyland.
Despite the difficulty, a visit to Sumba is incredibly rewarding. While traditionally constructed tribal villages are increasingly rare on other islands, western Sumba is covered with traditional villages featuring Sumba’s unique megalithic tombs and stunning high-roofed hut architecture. These villages are a sight to behold.
Communicating with villagers is very difficult. Without a guide, basic Indonesian language skills are essential as well as a lot of patience and understanding. A good guide would be very useful to learn about the intricacies of the local culture. Thomas and I, however, decided to take off and explore on our own.
Because we decided to go it alone, our focus was less on the details of the Sumbanese culture and more on an experiential exploration of tribal life, carefully feeling our way through their taboos and the complexities of their belief system. This will definitely not be the best choice for everyone. For people who do not have much experience with tribal cultures, such an approach can be awkward or, perhaps in some locations, even dangerous.
In theory, when entering traditional villages in Sumba, visitors are escorted to the head elder (kepala desa) where you are expected to offer gifts such as betel nut (sirih pinang). In practice, everybody and their brother might come out and demand gifts. While experienced travelers might initially dismiss this process as just another touristy village demanding some baksheesh, in reality most villages in Sumba are not that touristed. The process seems to be more of a modern interpretation of some traditional gift-giving ritual that applies to Indonesians and other locals as well.
Unfortunately, betel nuts aren’t cheap and visitors would go through a mountain of cash if they bought betel nuts for everyone. These days, many visitors buy packs of cigarettes and pass out individual cigarettes instead. I’m no big fan of Philip Morris, but these gifts are a necessity to enter traditional villages. Occasionally, in some frequently visited villages, they may ask for cash as well (that’s when those baksheesh instincts might be more valid.)
Whereas villagers in Lombok, Flores and Alor are quite hospitable, the Sumbanese seem more aloof and often somewhat suspicious. (Check out our post Predatory Techno-Vampire Tourists for a glimpse into what exactly is going on in their minds. It’s pretty staggering!) Despite the coolness, the fascinating villages are incredible windows into the past with massive megalithic tombs, table-like spirit stones (kateda) used for offerings to the dead, and skull trees (andung), where headhunters once hung their trophies.
But what really grabs visitors’ attention is the impressive Sumbanese hut architecture. Absurdly vertical roofs soar out of the broad-based, more functional open-sided living areas. Beams and lintels are often carved and porches are frequently decorated with lines of buffalo skulls. Unfortunately, like termites gnawing away at a masterpiece, art collectors are taking their toll on Sumba’s unique heritage.
Despite that toll, there is much here to thrill visitors with an interest in traditional culture. Local dress remains a part of daily life to some degree. Older women often go topless dressed only in their traditional ikat (a heavy, ornately woven sarong). Younger women, however, usually wear ikats with T-shirts. Men like to wear their ikat bunched up around their waist as a kind of belt over western clothing. Some men also wear a cloth chaotically tied around their head. Almost every man, young and old, carries a sword, which they unfortunately still use when tempers flare.
That violence is such a part of Sumbanese tradition that it has been ritualized into festivals such as the Pasola. Each year, the exotic Pasola season begins when village shamans along the coast determine that a specific sea worm (nyale) has arrived. Upon the arrival of the ocean worms, villages organize bloody boxing matches in which the fighters wrap their hands with razor-sharp grasses rather than using gloves. After the fights, Sumba’s warriors take part in ritual lance battles often injuring and occasionally killing each other in the process. (You kind of have to wonder if Gene Roddenberry based Klingons on the Sumbanese.)
So who are these shamans who announce the arrival of the worms? Sumbanese follow a religion called Marafu characterized by a belief in marapu, a collective term for various gods and spiritual beings. While many people here claim to be Christian, we discovered just how tenuous that claim was when a local pointed at a Christian grave marked with a cross and said, “Muslim grave.” (I think it’s fair to say that even the most superficial Christians would recognize a cross.)
Religious realities are best displayed in Sumbanese death rituals. When a person dies, the family members must sacrifice large numbers of horses and buffalo to appease the marapu and allow the dead person to enter the invisible world. Families spend enormous sums on these sacrifices and the economic toll on surviving family members can be devastating. It’s an interesting topic to take up with more modern Sumbanese living in towns.
Sumbanese culture is beyond fascinating. For this reason, Sumba is – without a doubt – one of the most unique and rewarding regions we have experienced in Indonesia. While change is definitely coming to Sumba, there are few places on the planet where you can encounter such deeply traditional people and explore such authentic villages.
So we just took off on motorbikes…
When they say the trip is the destination, they are talking about places like Sumba. Travel here is no piece of cake, but moving through this epic landscape, with all its challenges, is the definition of adventure. After a few days exploring the villages near Waikabubak, we set off on motorbikes with little more than a vague Lonely Planet map and a couple of useless brochures, and ended up getting lost for two days in one of those fantastically rewarding misadventures we have grown to love.
Our trip started out a bit questionably as we dodged an endless line of overloaded trucks on the “main road” from Waikabubak towards Waitabula. Unable to enjoy the undulating tropical landscape due to the trucks, we improvised a detour across the forested back country to Pero.
As is often the case, remote “roads” that appear on maps may not be there. Or there may be more of them than you anticipate. In this case, both scenarios proved to be true. Our road narrowed into slightly more than a paved, potholed path that wound its way through rainforest past tiny farms and villages becoming a rural maze of forks and side roads. In other words, it was awesome!
We discovered isolated villages with an entirely different hut architecture. Was it a different tribe? Or just a different kind of hut? We happened upon a string of remote rural schools where throngs of excited children waved and screamed as we rolled past. At one point, when we stopped to rest our sore butts (those potholes take their toll), a young Indonesian English teacher came running out thrilled to find English speakers in the middle of nowhere.
With limited Indonesian (on both sides) and lots of sign language we navigated across northwestern Sumba until we popped out of the rural maze near Bondokodi into a bustling tribal market. Men dressed in hand-woven ikat with swords at their side surrounded us to discover our story. We laughed and took photographs and began to elicit information on the best route to the only guesthouse in the Kodi region as of 2012, the extortionately priced yet hospitable Homestay Stori. The mosquito infested home was friendly and fun with Indonesian development workers who were as out of place in Sumba as we were.
Up early the next day, we pushed south through the extraordinary Kodi region. 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. Our first stop was the extraordinary village of Rantenggaro.
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 boasts half a dozen unique stone tombs. Looking back at the huts perched above the dramatic beach, 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.
Having said that, equally impressive Wainyapu lies just over the large river which winds its way out of the palms and empties into the ocean. Vast stretches of deserted golden sand sweep both north and south of the isolated villages. When we visited, not a tourist was 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 stared at us suspiciously. Children danced around us excited by our visit. Breaking all the rules we believe in, we had 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 asked for a cash donation signaling what we already knew: While these villages appear completely isolated, they are two of the more frequently visited locations in western Sumba (although the guestbook revealed that “frequently visited” might be a bit of an overstatement.) After signing the guestbook and offering a few more cigarettes, tensions relaxed and we were invited into some of the spectacular 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.
Continuing further south, the Lonely Planet map would have travelers believe there is a nice circular road that leads around western Sumba. Yeah right, maybe in 1950! Instead, we discovered a series of forks and ever deteriorating dirt roads which led past phenomenal villages, isolated stretches of rugged coast, massive jungle rivers, and stunning forests filled with topical beep-bop-boop sounds.
Lost for hours and struggling to find our path, Thomas suddenly announced that he was almost out of gas. I spent twenty minutes ranting and raving about not keeping an eye on his tank, which for some reason emptied much faster than mine. Eventually, I sobered and realized I was wasting precious time. We were in the middle of the forest and the road had narrowed to what looked like a dry riverbed. As if that weren’t bad enough, we had no idea which direction to drive in and the few other people we encountered seemed even less conversant in Indonesian than we were. In other words, we were having one of those authentic experiences that we “adventure travelers” wear like badges of honor.
We doubled back a few miles to a small hut enclave which – thank god – produced what looked like a beer bottle full of gasoline. (We love you hut enclave!) The amazing guy at the shop-hut drew a map on a piece of cardboard to help us navigate our way all the way back to Waikabubak. As absurd as the map below might look, it was our guide for the next four hours through the forest up onto an inland plateau featuring an an epic panorama of velvety emerald grasslands and a series of fairytale hill villages. We arrived in Waikabubak at the exact moment the sun was setting. Whew! Now that was one fun trip!
Here’s the map we used to find our way back to Waikabubak! 😉
WARNING: As is the case with environmentally fragile Komodo island, certain cruise lines have discovered Sumba and plans are underway to include traditional villages here on Indonesian itineraries. At least one ship has already visited dumping hundreds of people at once on a couple of Sumba’s culturally sensitive and unprepared villages. Such plans are BEYOND ABSURD and large-scale commercial exploitation of Sumbanese village life is WHOLLY inappropriate. Any cruise line considering Sumba visits should be strongly encouraged to drop such plans.