|(I apologize if this essay is a bit wordy. I have been told that website viewers just want pictures and do not
have the patience for text. But here, along with the photos, we have a story to tell.)
Flores, a large island in the Indonesian archipelago, is located about 300 miles east of Bali. Neither the Portuguese, nor the
Dutch ever really successfully colonized it, and the local animist cultures have, with little modification, survived intact. But
this is changing rapidly.
Trish and I flew from Bali to Flores’ Easternmost port town of Lambuanbajo, adjacent to the small island of Rinca, home
of the Komodo Dragons. We took a two-hour ride across the turbulent Molo Strait, then a two-hour hike through steamy
jungle. Our effort was rewarded by a sighting of two mature dragons in their wild inhabitant.
Being reptiles, they were not very active, but we were careful never the less. Their bites are lethal due to their foul saliva.
We also observed monkeys, wild pigs, and many wild water buffalos. This was just our preview of the adventures we were
to experience in Flores.
Two days riding “Bemos” – small crowded buses – over twisty pot holed mountain roads brought us to the hill town of
Bajawa. The Bemos of Flores can really be quite a terrifying experience as the drivers all look about thirteen years old,
while their chain smoking helpers and many passengers, your author included, like to hang precariously onto the sides.
In Bajawa we were fortunate to meet Lucas, a local guide and his elegant father.
After spending some time with him in his restaurant over a few beers, he offered to take us to a very special, isolated group
of villages up on the side of the volcano, Gunung Inerie. Lucas was raised in a traditional Njadha village. As a young child
he was taught to flee white people, believed to be headhunters. He worked his way through school collecting firewood in
the mountains. Surmounting many difficulties, he now speaks fluent English, Dutch, German, and Indonesian as well as his
native Njadha. Lucas is now 37 years old and has been a tour guide for fifteen years. But this was to be a special tour; a
visit to his home village which he hadn’t seen for almost two years. His wife was expecting a baby and he needed to
inform the village elders. We were indeed fortunate to accompany him.
We met Lucas late the next morning, and went to the market for supplies and gifts for the villagers. We had to climb over
the sides of a large crowded passenger truck and squeeze on to the wooden benches; each accommodated over ten men,
women, children and numerous chickens. In addition, there was a large pig (tied by his snout) in the back. The ride took
three-hours down to and along the hot sultry coast. During the ride, Lucas studied his book on Japanese. Trish was in her
element, talking to the kids, watching the pig, and trying to avoid the betel juice the old woman next to her kept spitting.
We got off the truck in a small village. A rocky path led us straight up the side of the volcano. The four-hour hike took us
through the jungle, past a large colony of long tailed macaque monkeys (stealing coconuts), and crops of bananas, vanilla
beans, betel nut trees, corn, cloves, cinnamon, tapioca and cassava. Few, if any crops were planted in this area until about
fifty years ago. Before then, this was a warrior based, hunter-gatherer culture. The hills remained bare and the villages
were located on the tops of the nearly inaccessible mountains for defensive reasons. Because of this, access to sources of
water, as well as other villages was, and remains very difficult.
The hike was steep, hot and exhausting. Fortunately, Lucas carried Trish’s pack, and our supplies for the village, including
four quarts of beer. Lucas reminded us that the children in the village walked down and back every day to school.
Finally, thatched roofs of the first village loomed out of the jungle.
Machileva the first village was quite empty due to a funeral, but we visited one family for an hour or so. The father smoked
the cigarettes we had brought him, while his wife and two old ladies prepared and then chewed their ever-present betel nut
concoction. While all the men smoke tobacco, the women chew betel nut, actually a mixture of sirih leaf, lime from crushed
shells and betel nut, the combination of which produces the addictive, red saliva-producing drug.. As a result, most of their
teeth are missing, and those few left are permanently dyed a hideous red.
We left them and mounted yet another very steep trail to the next two villages. Trish did complain a bit, but when we saw
two girls carrying water from the nearest source, over an hour down and back up a very steep trail, she thought better of it.
The villages of Watu (meaning rocky, very accurate) and Bongedo, above it, are attached. Unlike the other, both villages
were active and full of very curious people.
Lucas gave us a short explanatory tour of the two villages. Each Ngada village is made up of clans, in this case six. Each clan
is represented by two traditional structures. The Ngada, representing the male is umbrella shaped, to symbolize protection. It
is about ten feet high with a round, thatched roof supported on an intricately carved wooden pole. On the top is a carved
symbolic figure of a man holding a spear in one hand and a sword in the other.
The Bhaga, representing the female, is a miniature thatch roofed house in which offerings are placed.
Both shrines are in the middle of a large square, and are surrounded by high-roofed thatched houses, built on stilt foundations.
Two houses represent each clan, with male and female symbols on the roofs. The other houses have symbols to scare off evil
The houses and shrines are all traditionally constructed using no nails, the wooden pieces all fit into each other, again
representing man and woman. While we were able to see and go into the outer, enclosed porch areas, the inner rooms are off
limits to all but the family members. In addition to sleeping, the cooking is done in there, with no chimney! The smoke
slowly filters out through the thatch which keeps most of the rain out. There is a lot of what we would consider primitive
carving, some now seen in museums. But this was no museum or a re-created village for tourists.
Both the shrines and the traditional homes are very expensive to create. The shrines, for example, costs 50,000,000 Rupiahs,
or about $5.000! The cost is not in the construction, but in the necessary sacrifices.Forty large pigs at about 2,000,000
Rupiahs apiece and several even more expensive water buffalos have to be sacrificed in order to consecrate the structure.
Their jawbones hang in front of all the finished homes in testament to these sacrifices. In addition, drinks and food have to
be prepared for all the visiting relatives from other villages. For this reason, many houses are simply made of bamboo and
thatch, while the family saves their money to build the traditional home their ancestors would approve of.
As the Njadha practice subsistence culture, they have few ways of acquiring cash. After a long, difficult process, they are
able to produce coconut oil, which they sell in Bajawa. Our empty beer bottles were especially prized for this. They also sell
betel nuts and vanilla beans. The betel nuts are difficult to harvest as they grow at the top of a very tall, very straight, palm-
like tree. Also, occasionally they are able to harvest a mahogany tree, mill it into planks, and carry them down to the coast for
On our arrival, we were invited into the outer room of a traditional house for dinner. The elderly widow made dinner, and
while about ten of us ate together, curious neighbors joined us one by one. Dinner consisted of plain rice and cheap,
packaged noodles. We later found out that this was a special treat! Their normal meal is just dried corn, and maybe some
vegetables, as they cannot grow rice and it is too expensive to buy (and haul up to the village). Meanwhile, our gifts of
cigarettes (it killed me!) were passed to all the men. To light them, they sent their small boys of 4-5 years into the inner room
where the fire is. The boys lit the cigarettes, took a puff, which they blew at all their friends, and then proudly handed them
to their Dads. I’m sure they’ll all be hooked by the time they’re 6 years old!
It was suggested that Trish and I might like to buy a bottle of Arrack a distilled. Palm liquor to share with our new friends. As
it was only 5,000 Rupiahs (fifty cents), we readily agreed. It was quite good, smooth and pleasantly strong. Trish was
especially impressed with the corncob cork. Of course, I wanted to buy another, but Trish consulted otherwise.
The lack of easily obtained water and the primitive conditions dictate the design of the toilet facilities. Usage necessitates a
walk down a very steep rocky trail to a bamboo outhouse. Your aim has to be good as the receptacle is a bamboo trough. A
small bamboo bucket filled with precious water, with a coconut shell in it serves to flush the tube into the adjacent covered pit.
We then moved on up yet another hill by climbing several very steep, very rough staircases made of piled rocks, to Bongedo,
where we would stay with Luca’s sister-in-law.
When we arrived, a party was already in progress. A bottle of Arrack was being consumed in well-aged coconut shell cups
and bowels of hot corn kernels, and fiery peppers were being passed around. Of course the women were chewing the ever-
present betel nut and the men smoked our gift cigarettes. We were made very welcome. While we could understand very
little, and Lucas did not translate much, it somehow seemed like a normal, comfortable social situation.
As the evening progressed, and we became more comfortable together, we traded stories about our children; every parent’s
favorite topic. The corn was good, but chewy, the chilies hot, and the Arrack tasted better as the evening progressed. The
hostess brought out her ukulele and another woman started playing a beautiful carved drum. Their singing had a timeless
quality, the tones unusually high. We were way back in the remote past. Two large spoons in the neck of an empty beer
bottle became another instrument, which Trish soon mastered to the applause of all. It was late, we were all tired, but we
continually and happily kept agreeing to “just one more song”. The village head left to check his cornfield for thieving pigs,
an hour walk in the dark. They have no guns, but he took his spear. By the end of the evening, Trish was demonstrating her
version of the Hula.
Finally it was time to retire. Woven mats were produced to put on top of the bamboo floor which made it relatively
comfortable – with cracks to spit betel nut juice through. Continuing the party spirit, many neighbors stayed the night with us.
After a fairly restless night with much snoring; crowing roosters – under the floor, marked the start of a new day.
Breakfast was very special. Delicious steamed rice and red beans with generous glasses of arrack (it was Sunday)! By this
time we didn’t feel that we were with a group of exotic primitive people. We were with friends.
|Lucas (in hat) and village family.
The steep path was easier going down, just two hours. After a long walk, a bus took us back up the mountain to Bajawa,
where Lucas was informed that his wife had just had a baby boy! Months later, Trish and I were very proud to receive an
email informing us that Lucas had named his son Marvin.
In a world modernizing at an ever accelerating pace, the opportunity for experiences such as we had in Bongedo will become
difficult, if not impossible to find. Tourists scour the world for ever diminishing “trekking” opportunities. The children who
now find their way down the long steep trail to school will, in all likelihood find careers and lives in other, more hospitable
places. Bongedo will be just a memory. We will never forget the good fortune we had in spending a night similar to those
experienced by the vast numbers of our ancestors through the distant eons.
* (Note) There is a story about the old widow dancing in front of the tombstones. She constantly danced and sang a kind of dirge during our visit.
She lives alone in a large double clan compound with two adjoining houses with both sets of symbols. Unfortunately she had six sons and no
daughters. This is a tragedy in the Njadha matrilineal culture. As per their tradition, all six sons moved in with their wives’ families to eventually take
care of them, leaving their mother alone. The thought of spending the rest of her life alone, and of her family loosing their ancestral home and all its
possessions to other families – including a rumored box of Portuguese gold – apparently drove her insane.