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Biking Sumba


With a full on day planned, my unexpected inclusive brekkie was a helpful juncture in swiftly deeming me as ready as I would ever be, and so I mounted my very new looking Honda 125 complete with spanky modern helmet and face visor. Though I had played this game a couple of times already in Sumatra it was always destined to be something of a liability what with my inexperience, crazy driving and poor road conditions, but some things just had to be done. I had stoically resisted that temptation on Sumbawa and accordingly had only managed to avail myself of a single sojourn to a traditional village, the allure of Sumba's even more traditional culture was too much to deny myself however so I took my life in my hands once again. It really was just like riding a bike, once you learned you never forgot the gist of the gear shift mechanism and the braking strategy, and Sumba's main road continued to prove to be an excellent if narrow surface with happily little traffic. After a nip round to the nearby tourist office, an incredibly overstaffed bureaucracy full of khaki uniformed honeys, I left still devoid of my pertinent need of a map but now at least in the knowledge that a local month long festival I had hoped to witness had already passed.
Having already spied a rare petrol station in my wanderings I opted to fill the bike to the max there, learning that it would hold all of 2.9 litres at a cheap and cheerful 70p. Bemos which frequently stopped without warning were the greatest hurdle in recrossing the town, appeased by the realisation that at least they observed traffic lights in this nick of the woods, and soon I was hammering along an excellently straight and flat road out east to a junction village named Pasunga. Though there had been many periodic hints as to Sumba's demeanour, Pasunga blew all of that away with the readily apparent roadside setting of a very traditional village, a double row of supremely sharp roofed thatch houses on squat bamboo frames, an unlikely design which somehow had me thinking of Windy Miller's hat. Andy Pandy had arrived!

What really qualified the village however beyond its size and unusual setting upon a flat plain was the nearby presence of a concentration of typically gigantic tombs, the prime example being an excellently adorned slab of grey rock with an atypical carved headstone all of 3 metres high. Carved clean through in parts to render it 3 dimensional, its main feature was a male/female couple stood beside each other with their hands on hips. An old boy dressed in traditional Ikat sarong and bizzarely a reggae shirt was conveniently or perhaps inconveniently ensconced on the nearest verandah, promptly assuming a posture of a held out hand, it was predictable if unpalatable. Though I had often had to fight against a long legacy of determined rip offs, it wasnt so much the money as the fact that these people presented me with no service so as to deserve it and I knew that with every ostensibly rich white man who reaffirmed their stance they would surely become corrupted to the point of endangering the very culture people came to appreciate. I had recently witnessed the downward spiral In East Kalimantan where villagers had wholeheartedly sold out to the tourist dollar and began cavorting around in unrepresentative overwrought costumary, performing pantomime and demanding payment for photography. If it wasnt a true unadulterated experience as far as I was concerned then it had no traditional base whatsoever however, and though I had to accept my fare share of the blame for supposedly creating the demand for such behaviour, I certainly didnt have to like it. I gave the old boy 5,000 Rupiah and grudged sponsoring his idleness. It was the greatest irony of tourism that one frequented places only to bugger them up in the very process, and how long would it be until the whole world was like Benidorm or Bali? It would redistribute wealth certainly, but it wouldnt preserve their culture. Turning south at the nearby junction, a very grungy grass roots market immediately stopped me in my tracks, boasting the kind of honest unlovely vibe I was in search of. Lines of women sat or slumbered in rows, each proferring a humble assortment of local staples such as sampat (chilis), baby tomatoes, dried fish and vegetables. Rarely witnessed fruits such as custard apples and bell shaped wax apples were present, but more interesting still was the discovery of freshly harvested salt (garam), so different from the western packaged variety that I at first took it to be coconut, and the regions most notorious indulgence Sirih (betel nut). It was here that I first came across its frequent usage too, with most notably the old women partaking as a matter of course. Destroying what might have been otherwise beautiful faces, a plug of the mildly intoxicating plant would be held under one side of their top lip, after taking shards of the nut, revealing a grizzly glare from black teeth and bright red gums. The unpaved ground was randomly splattered where they had spat out the residue, and it was especially disturbing to spy young beauties who would soon prove to be too ghastly to kiss.

The eternal onslaught of "Hello misters" at least had its compensations in affording me the prerogative of engaging with some of them who might have otherwise been typically aloof. It was another short hop down a straight newly laid surface to Kabonduk, a village which had given in to practicality by lining their pointy roofs with corrugated sheeting, but there were still centrally ensconced tombs to appreciate including a modern glazed tile example which was reputedly the largest on Sumba. It weighed in at 70 tonnes and had incredibly been rendered there manually. As an ever friendly army post opposite watched over my bike, I was approached by another enforced suitor, with this one settling for a cigarette which I had stocked up on in anticipation. It was nice to hear him pay silent homage to my Bahasa in saying that normally tourists didnt speak it, but I still succumbed to his game plan when he elected to escort me for the short walk up to a subsequent couple of more traditional kampungs nestled on nearby hilltops. Knowing that he would expect payment and in defence of my fearsome independent streak, it was a tough call but I eventually decided to make my excuses and forego my plans. I knew from experience that my eyes would glaze over in frustration and spoil the experience. 5 minutes further down the road lay one of Sumba's most impressive tombs at the modern hamlet of G........, and having been forewarned by the guidebook of the grumpy aggressive headman in whose yard it lay, it was payback to be able to appreciate it unmolested save for a few harmless "Hello misters". Not only was it fronted by a very tall headstone carved with intricate geometric patterns, a male-female head pairing and birds, but upon the giant grey slab had been placed a rock representation of a traditional dwelling. I suppose to simulate a final resting place. Though any dating or other inscription was unusual to find, most were remarkably recent constructions which gave a much more honest insight into the present day perpetuation of obviously ancient practices. The excellent example at Pasunga for example dated only as far back as 1926, and 150 buffalo had allegedly been ritually slaughtered in the same juncture. Another nearby had a block of stone steps reaching up to it dated 1992 and 2000, it might have seemed hundreds of years old in the absence of that detail. From G...... I had a bit of a problem in that trying to manufacture an efficient loop of all my proposed destinations, I was left with nothing but a woefully inadequate guidebook map to convince me of its viability. What certainly didnt help was the singular absence of road signs and village nameplates and soon in resolve to continue south and then west on a periodically degrading road, I eventually found myself unsure as to where I was and in which direction to turn. Though I sought local advice time and again at the expense of rapidly depleting cigarettes, where there was any conviction at all it proved contradictory. Upon tiring of negotiating a now rocky puncture threatening track I finally had to admit defeat and retrace my motocross course, it had been a waste of a precious hour but had at least afforded me fine vistas of endless green pastures and a horseman shepherding a buffalo. Stick in hand, he resembled the local ancient festival of mounted fighting known as the Pasola, a major tourist drawcard every February. Many uniformed schoolkids on their long walk home in the middle of nowhere were unanimous in shouting "Hyaaagh!" as I passed, until back at the Pasunga junction I opted for a tea stop. Finding the only watering hole around frequented by a crowd of locals dolled up in their finest, I was promptly beckoned over to join what proved to be a funeral reception, an appropriate find considering my tomb hunting agenda, and it was an excellent opportunity to be able to appreciate friendly intercourse with men decked out in their traditional diminutive headband like turbans, Batak shirts, Ikat sarongs and waistbands with a Keris (sword) sometimes tucked in. I was made to feel very welcome and blessed with water, and perhaps it was upon my enquiry for tea that it was soon served to whoever cared for it. A young boy with a smattering of English told how it was his 75 year old uncle who had passed away, an influential man who had served in both the army and the police, his legacy betrayed by a preponderance of muslims dressed Malay style. I was offered Betel Nut which I politely declined, the boy explaining that the tiny green corn on the cob resembling plant sprigs and an accompanying fine white powder were both very spicy. Though a full funeral ceremony might be delayed for up to 10 years in this nick of the woods as the family struggled to afford its requisite elaboration, I rather suspected that wouldnt be so in this case. I shoved a few thousand in the donation box all the same. Retracing Waikabubak, I didnt stop but passed through onto a southern tangent in search of the elusive village of Tanamura where my initial loop had been aimed. Initially climbing on a now twisty blind bend road through this most undulating of lands, the main artery had been a thankfully tame introduction to some demanding driving where the back of the bike would try to step out on a dusty overlay. I stopped frequently to appreciate the fine vistas, with sporadic thatched roofs betraying periodic hamlets sometimes only 2 or 3 houses strong, eventually reaching a crest and spying a distant line of surf. The Indian Ocean. It was at one of these pit stops that a bike drew up to match mine and the young boy with his sweet pillion squeeze asked the ubiquitous "Where you go mister?!". Citing Tanamura, he beckoned me to follow him which I struggled to do on the snaky road, but eventually he pulled up by the start of a steep rocky trail and pointed the way up. I subsequently learned that up there lay not Tanamura but the very traditional villages of Praiguli and ........ which had actually been my ultimate goal, and I would never have found them on my own. This was the real McCoy. Praiguli was a typical huddle of sharp thatched roofs with bamboo verandahs sheltering pigs and chickens underneath, encircling a concentration of ancient looking slab tombs of which one was fantastic in its ancestral homage............

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Indonesia

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