Travel Diary: Sumba, Indonesia

As I’m writing this, I am supposed to be conducting my PhD fieldwork in the beautiful montane forests of Peninsular Malaysia. Alas, a global virus pandemic had other ideas and I’m stuck in the UK. Instead of batting off leaches, catching frogs and eating tasty food, I decided to write about some of my previous trips. 

Prior to starting my PhD, I was worked as an ecologist for an environmental consultancy in Singapore. It’s a bit of a long story how I came to that job, but that’s for another post. During my time at the consultancy, I was fortunate enough to work on some really great projects. This post is about my time on the Indonesian island of Sumba.

The company I worked for was hired to produce an environmental assessment for a project establishing community-run solar power grids in five remote villages on the island of Sumba. Indonesia has over 17,000 islands, of which around 6,000 are inhabited. I think that I’ve visited 14 or so of them: Bali, Bintan, Batam, Flores, Gili Laba, Java, Keramat, Komodo, Lombok, Moyo, Rinca, Satonda, Sumba & Sumbawa (plus Borneo – but only the Malaysian side). The island of Sumba is situated towards the eastern stretch of Indonesia and sits directly below the islands of Komodo and Flores.

A person standing in front of a mountain

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The rolling hills covering much of the island

In November 2016, I flew from Singapore to Jakarta (the capital city of Indonesia, on the island of Java) to meet the rest of the team and then took a small propeller plane from Jakarta to Sumba. We landed in the east of Sumba, at a small airport in the town of Waingapu, the largest town in Sumba. Waingapu airport at the time was just one small open-sided building with plastic seats scattered around the edge of the room. Bags were loaded off the plane and onto on a small trolley, which was dumped in the centre of the room. There can’t have been more than 25 people on the flight, so it was one of the quickest airport arrivals. After grabbing bags, we meet up with our local guides and hop into two 4×4 trucks – the only way to get to where we’re going.

One of our trucks and an example of a typical road

There are 13 of us in our team: 6 specialists from Jakarta, 4 local Sumbese guides, 2 drivers, and me. We drive down the road to our hotel in Waingapu, where we are met by local government officials for a project meeting. We all pile into the hotel’s meeting room for a 2-hour long project briefing – all spoken in Indonesian Bahasa. Unfortunately, my Bahasa is pretty minimal, but I manage to get out an introduction about myself and my role as the environmental consultant on the trip – something which I’d already written out to prepare myself. The specialists from Jakarta translate the necessary to me, so I was very happy to have them there, though it’s in these sorts of moments when I feel lazy about my lack of language capabilities. The meeting finally ended to much relief. As we are in Sumba during the dry season, the weather is a stifling 30 degrees. The meeting room had a couple of small table fans, but it was that temperature that makes you want to fall asleep. I’d been travelling since 3 am and I really struggled to keep my eyes open.

Limestone hills

The next day we fill the car with enough bottled water, coffee and instant noodles to last the 2-week trip and set off for the first village. Google maps says it’s a 3-hour drive to the approximate location on the east coast, but I think these calculations are based on the assumption of a normal road – which at the time we didn’t have. In the end it took around 5-6 hours to reach our first village. There was 6 of us crammed into a 4×4, hanging on as we passed along the bumpy gravel roads. It was one of the most uncomfortable car rides I’ve ever experienced, but the scenery was incredible. Rolling, rugged, limestone hill savannahs as far as the eye can see, in every direction. The starkness of it is breath-taking, with trees only growing in the valleys, where during the wet season small streams would form. We are over the eastern side of the island, which apparently is less densely populated than the more fertile western region. Sumba has a population density of 67/km2 with a total population of around 760,000. To add some comparison, neighbouring tourism hotspot Bali has a density of 750/km2 and a population of over 4 million people despite being half the size of Sumba.

The sun was in my eyes

Eventually we reach the first village, passing down small dusty roads and over some challenging river crossings – luckily it was the dry season. We arrive in a small village and head to a nearby market to get some supplies. The market is packed with around a hundred people going about their business. As I get out the truck, I can feel a lot of eyes on me. I follow my team through the market and try to keep calm despite the attention. Everyone is friendly and waving at me, though it’s an uncomfortable situation for me as I’m generally not a social person. As we are walking through, a guy walks up behind me and starts talking English. The news that there was an English person had obviously filtered through to the guy in the village that could speak English. The guy is in his 50s and has a small shop in the market selling drinks and cigarettes. He invites me back to his shop, it’s a wooden shed type building with space for around 4 plastic chairs inside. I sit down and he offers me a can of coke, which I gladly take. He tells me about his history – I believe his father was involved with translation – and we make small talk. It’s nice to be sat down inside, slightly sheltered from the small crowd that has gathered outside. He makes me promise to learn to speak Indonesian Bahasa if I come back, and I say that I will. It’s something that I regularly think about and it makes me feel a guilty. It would have been really nice to have spoken to more people. As I leave, I try to pay him for the drink and he refuses. Throughout the trip, every single person that I met was generous and kind.  

The headman’s house

After the market, we drive to the village headman’s house. He is welcoming and greets us as we sit on plastic chairs in the shade under his porch. His wife brings us all coffee and we make introductions. I’m starting to get better at my small introduction in Bahasa, but if anything, it just gives the other person the impression that I can actually speak some Bahasa. This illusion is obviously shattered as soon as they ask me a question. Maybe I should have just pleaded dumb from the start. After coffee, I ask a colleague when we’re having lunch. He laughs at me and points in the distance – “there’s lunch”. Tied to a tree is a goat, sat down in the shade eating the few strands of grass growing around it. The goat was very much alive, so lunch was going to be a while.

The traditional peaked roof, though traditionally made of palm leaves

Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country – bar a few islands such as Bali, which is Hindu, and Sumba, which is Christian. Sumba was colonised by the Dutch and religion was spread by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, especially on the east of the island. The traditional Sumbese religion ‘Marapu’ is still regarded as an important part of their culture, despite the modern Christian influences. An example is the peaked rooves of some houses, which according to Marapu traditions are home to the spirits. As most of my colleagues were from Jakarta, a Muslim region, their food must be prepared in accordance to Halal practices – this means cutting the animal’s throat with a knife, pointing the animal’s head in a certain direction, and reciting a prayer. Since we couldn’t get any Halal meat, the deal was that we would slaughter the animals ourselves. We all stood in silence and watched as my colleague did the honours. It was pretty graphic, but we were dished up goat soup two hours later.

Mapping out the solar grid. The landscape was very dry and dusty.

After a day walking around the village and mapping out the solar power grid, we return to the headman’s house for the evening. We sit out on the porch drinking coffee and the headman passes me a wooden box. As I thank him, everyone bursts out laughing. Quick aside: the name for the Village Head is ‘Kepala Desa’, ‘kepala’ meaning ‘head’, ‘desa’ meaning ‘village’. A similar word already locked in my Indonesian vocabulary is ‘kelapa’, the word for ‘coconut’. Thankfully the Village Head had a good sense of humour and laughed at my embarrassment after realising that I had called him the Village Coconut. Laughter passes, so I open the wooden box to find a handful of dried plant inflorescences, or flower spikes. If you’re from the UK, we sometimes call these catkins. I am told that these are from the Piper betel plant, a vine in the Pepper family. These plants are thought to have medicinal value and are often chewed throughout Southeast Asia, though there have been links to mouth cancer. I am gestured to try it, so I reach for the smallest one. I am told that chewing them is thought to help clean your teeth after a meal and provide gum care, though you’re not to swallow it. It’s a strange taste, kind of like a peppery Dettol. We all spend the next 10 minutes chewing and spitting on the ground. It feels disrespectful to the host to be spitting on his porch, but everyone is doing it.

Piper betel flowers

After finishing work at the first village, we move on to the next. As we are driving there, I learn that we have been invited to stay at a ranch owned by someone related to the local ‘king’. Traditionally, the social system of Sumba was based on a caste system, with everything from kings and nobles and slaves. Officially, these ranks no longer exist, but my team tell me that this man has a very high social status and is likely to still have slaves working on his cattle ranch. As we drove to his ranch, I could feel that everyone was a bit nervous. The man greeted us on arrival and after introductions we ate dinner with his family – it felt very formal. He lived in a nice house with leather sofas and a flat screen TV – a stark difference to what I’d seen the last few days. He was a tall man with an intimidating regal disposition and spoke with a deep, calm voice. After dinner we moved outside to the garden, where we sat on plastic chairs under the shade of a tall fruit tree, which occasionally dropped plum-sized fruits on to us. As it started to get late, I could see everyone looked very tired, but no one wanted to be the first one to excuse themselves to bed, out of respect for our host. I was struggling to keep my eyes open but was sitting directly in front of our host so didn’t want to make a bad impression. At some point I must have fallen asleep for a few seconds as I woke to everyone laughing at me. With that, the host made a comment about it being late and we all went to bed. Later on, my team thanked me for being the one to fall asleep.   

The golden hour

To reach the remaining villages, we drive along the eastern coastline to the southern tip of the island. We stop for a break and look out at the open sea. If I started swimming south from this point, the next land mass I’d reach is Australia – about 700 km away, or about the distance from the tip of Cornwall to the top of Spain. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is at that perfect angle, the ‘golden hour’, where everything looks beautiful. To add to the magic, a group of horses gallops along the beach far in the distance like some stereotypical bank advert. Then out of nowhere, a herd of water buffalo run past us and wander down the beach. Pretty cool!  

Water buffalo

The rest of the trip goes well, we visit the remaining villages and spend a day or two at each. On the way back we pass a small cashew orchard. Cashew nuts are weird. If someone had shown me a photo of how cashews grow, I would have said it was fake. A single nut grows out of a cashew fruit like a creepy toenail. I tried the fruit and it tastes like a mix of cashew and pear, but the texture is fibrous. We continue the drive back to Waingapu, the northern airport town. As it gets dark, we stop at a small fisherman’s jetty on the coast to look for a restaurant. We end up having what was probably the best seafood dinner I’ve ever had. All throughout this trip food has been pretty good: from the goat soups to all manner of curries and rice dishes. One thing I love about Indonesia is their ‘sambal’ – a type of delicious crushed chilli paste which everyone seems to have their own special recipe for. Sumba was no different and it was great to visit so many different villages and try all the different styles of sambal. I feel very privileged to have been on this trip, especially as I didn’t have to worry about logistics for once – I just sat back and enjoyed the view out of the back of a cramped 4×4.  

Still not sure that cashew nuts are real

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