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Flores: It Takes a Village

One thing I relish about travel is the fact that it turns our daily routines upside down; it jolts us out of our comfort zones and tends to flout the unwritten rules we live by. I realize this one bright Monday morning in Kampung Melo, a small mountain village on the Indonesian island of Flores. It turns out that any visit here must involve a welcome drink of sopi – a clear, colorless spirit distilled from the sap of the areng palm – in a shaded pavilion beside a small field. “If you don’t drink alcohol,” a spokesman says to our group, “just touch the glass.”

It seems a waste to refuse the local moonshine when it’s already been poured out for us all. Sitting cross-legged on a rattan mat opposite the village elders, I watch intently as they raise the sopi to their lips and guzzle it with gusto. I quickly do the same. It is sweet, strong, and rather tasty to boot. Who knew I’d be downing a shot of palm liquor at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning?

Kampung Melo turns out to be the unexpected highlight of my second work trip to Flores, and not just because of the sopi. The real reason we’ve come is to watch members of its cultural cooperative perform a series of traditional dances. Roughly an hour’s drive outside the coastal boomtown of Labuan Bajo, Kampung Melo is our first stop on a day-long excursion into the mountainous interior of western Flores to understand a bit more about the local Manggarai tribe. This time I am joined by Tama, one of the company’s in-house photographers, as well as three staff members from the Ayana Komodo Resort: Beauty, a Jakarta transplant, and Flores-born chaperones Fendi and Yanus.

The showcase at Kampung Melo revolves around caci, a ritual whip-fighting dance that began as a test of agility and fighting skill between two men. Typically, teams from two different villages face off as part of a thanksgiving ceremony after the harvest, and to welcome newlyweds and important guests. Before the whip-fighting gets underway, Tama quizzes one performer about the marks on his upper body from previous rounds of caci. “These scars are a source of pride,” he tells him. “It’s proof of our strength and manliness.” I notice another dancer with a small crucifix dangling from a chain over his bare chest, indicating the unique position of Flores as a predominantly Catholic island (at least on a superficial level) in a majority-Muslim nation.

A warm welcome at the Manggarai village of Kampung Melo

Seeking shade before the performance

Kampung Melo looks out over the coastline (an hour’s drive away) and the Flores Sea

The cultural showcase begins

Warming up before the strike

In a caci ritual, even the weapons are imbued with meaning. The larik, a whip made with rattan and strips of buffalo hide, symbolizes the male element, the phallus, and the sky; the defender’s round nggiling shield (created from bamboo and those same materials) represents the female element, the womb, and the earth. Each strike therefore alludes to sexual union and the creation of life.

Just as significant are the costumes worn by the performers. Wrapped in cloth and goat hair, their panggal helmets are crowned with make-believe buffalo horns that stand for charisma and strength. One caci dancer at Kampung Melo sports a tubi rapa, or a chain of decorative beads strapped around the chin to indicate the greatness of Manggarai men. At the back are ponytail-like rattan-and-horse-hair ndeki that denote masculinity and courage, while white, loose-fitting pants symbolize generosity, sincerity, and purity or innocence. A woven cloth known locally as songke, a mark of respect and politeness, is also tied over those trousers.

The mood is laid-back and festive as we watch round after round of caci from a relatively safe distance. Seven fighters take turns maneuvering into position on the center of the field, before summoning every ounce of strength to leap into the air and strike their opponent with a loud crack! of the whip. All have multiple chances to test their mettle – both as an attacker and a defender. No one minds that this ritual carries the real risk of injury; it’s believed that any blood drawn in the process becomes an offering to the ancestors, who then bless the land with fertility.

Bells, batik, and local “songke” fabric all feature in the costume of a caci fighter

Chilling out on the sidelines

A caci fighter takes the leap

The moment of contact between whip and shield

Not your typical Monday morning

Kampung Melo’s women are not left out of the jamboree. An all-female group armed with drums and gongs provides much of the backing soundtrack; others in lime-green tops and black sarongs intricately woven with colorful motifs dance across the field before and after the whip-fighting rituals. The final act consists of Rangkuk Alu, which has its roots in a game played by teenagers after the harvest, at the time of the full moon. First, a loose lattice is assembled just off the ground – it’s made up of bamboo poles grouped into pairs that open and close in unison. Several dancers then jump around to avoid getting clamped, all while the spaces between the rods shift at quickening speed. Eventually two poles are brought up to neck level so the performers must watch not only their feet but also their heads. When the village spokesman asks if any of us in the audience want to join in, no one dares to come forward.

I’m under no illusion that what we’ve been witnessing is a show put on for tourists like us, but the whole arrangement feels natural and genuine. The villagers’ warmth and cheerfulness doesn’t dissipate the moment the performance ends; it is simply their way of being. I notice a map on the back wall of the welcome pavilion that announces the word “HOMESTAY” in bold lettering, and wonder how it would be to spend a few days getting to know the residents of Kampung Melo on an individual level – eating their food, lending a hand to harvest fresh produce from the fields and forage for ingredients in the nearby forests. I would love to hear stories and legends that might shed some light on the Manggarai view of the world and their place in it, and in so doing, regain a shred of the elemental wisdom we have lost by living in our high-rise cities, where life seems unfathomable without a smartphone or an Internet connection.

Before bidding Kampung Melo goodbye, we huddle together with the performers for a group photo. An older man to my right drapes his arm across my shoulders in an unexpected gesture of friendliness; I would like nothing more than to stay longer, but we have another 241 kilometers (150 miles) to cover before the day ends. Our group piles back into the four-wheel drive and sets out on the two-lane Trans-Flores “Highway” – a precious lifeline that connects disparate towns and rural communities across this rugged, wild, and sparsely populated island.

Here come the women

Graceful steps on the field; symbolic offerings for the audience

A thanksgiving dance usually performed after the harvest

Circles of life

Assembling a lattice of bamboo poles for the Rangkuk Alu dance

Five women test their agility and footwork

And now, the dancers must watch their heads

Two, three hours pass as we wind our way through the heart of western Flores with Yanus at the wheel. Though he has the benefit of occupying the passenger seat, Fendi isn’t doing so well; the serpentine nature of the Trans-Flores and the speed at which we’re traveling has given him a bout of motion sickness. What doesn’t help are the hairpin turns of an even narrower road that we must navigate to reach our next destination – the village of Todo. Half-hidden in thick banks of low cloud, and perched high on a mountaintop, this was once the seat of the Manggarai kings.

We’re greeted at a modest guesthouse by the stern-faced but jovial Pak Titus, who is in charge of tourism in these parts. As a sign of respect, every visitor to Todo must don the traditional attire: a handwoven tube sarong as well as a cap – angled upwards at the front – for men. Pak Titus takes care to put me in the right clothes, and my companions are delighted at the transformation. “You look like a Minang [from West Sumatra],” Tama says. Once everyone is suitably dressed, we walk out to begin our tour by inspecting five cannons said to be procured from passing Portuguese ships, though they were curiously cast in Liverpool. All is well until I trip over my own sarong and fall onto the ground while attempting to tackle a rough, uneven flight of steps. After getting over their initial shock, Beauty and Tama explain that I am not used to wearing a sarong in daily life. “Anak jaman now,” Pak Titus chuckles. Millennials.

Todo is one of the few Manggarai villages that have retained their historic circular layout, with houses built around a raised megalithic platform in the shape of a horseshoe. At its center stands a stone altar that doubles as an ancestral grave, or compang, signifying the role of the ancestors as an intermediary between mankind and Mori Kraeng, the Creator.

The village is also home to one particularly fine example of a mbaru niang – the traditional Manggarai stilted house with a distinctive conical shape. Thatched in the fiber of the lontar palm, its roof almost reaches to the ground. A central pillar holds up the building’s internal wooden frame, plus a carved pinnacle adorned with a buffalo horn if it happens to be the abode of a king. All visitors must stoop to enter; the low headroom of the canopy over the front door is for added protection and, in Pak Titus’s words, “to make people more respectful.” We don’t get to go inside the mbaru niang, though it’s enough to admire the wooden carvings below the eaves at the entrance. These represent the knife used to cut the umbilical cord at birth, and are meant to correspond to the number of children in a household, with different motifs (like a womb) to indicate the gender of each one.

Thatched “mbaru niang” houses and the ancestral grave at the center of Todo village

Weaving a sarong by hand

A Catholic church rises above the newer section of the village

Pak Titus and Yanus leading the way

The decorative pinnacle and carvings above the entrance of the former king’s house

Beauty taking in the misty, timeless surroundings

Another thing that sets Todo apart is the fact that it possesses a drum with a membrane made from human skin. Though the sacred relic can sometimes be viewed for a steep fee, Pak Titus tells us it is usually locked inside what was once the king’s house and only brought out on certain occasions. The skin, we’re told, is very smooth. “It’s from the belly of a princess,” Pak Titus says.

Todo’s prized heirloom has its origins in an 18th-century legend of a young maiden named Nggerang who, by some accounts, was born of an incestuous marriage. One version has it that the newborn baby was thrown down a waterfall, only to be rescued and raised by the spirits of the land. Another says she lived a perfectly normal childhood in her home village of Ndoso. Either way, as Nggerang blossomed in her teens, her unrivaled beauty captivated practically all the men who beheld her. The stories don’t say much, if anything, about her face; we only know she had a patch of golden skin on her upper back, perfectly round and the size of a gong’s eye.

It is said that Nggerang’s golden skin was so luminous it radiated light into the sky – a phenomenon the Sultan of Bima, who ruled the Manggarai realms from the neighboring island of Sumbawa, could see it from his palace over 170 kilometers (105 miles) away. He soon dispatched a royal servant and a band of foot soldiers to find the source of that mysterious glow; they were amazed to discover it was in fact a beautiful teenage princess. The sultan himself made the journey in person to propose to the maiden, but much to his shock, and that of the whole village, Nggerang refused his offer outright.

The spurned sultan was so upset he threatened to use black magic to send a sea of dark clouds to cover the Manggarai lands, blocking out the sun and ruining crops until Nggerang accepted his hand in marriage. Her fellow villagers begged her to reconsider the proposal to no avail: the young princess did not change her mind. And so the proud sultan condemned her to death. He forced Nggerang’s father, Awang, to kill his own daughter and make her skin into drums, a cruel decree that he only obeyed after several attempts to spare her life by using buffalo hide and goatskin instead. But the ploy failed because the sultan knew Nggerang was not dead so long as the light from Flores still shone into the heavens.

As for the reason why the drum ended up in Todo, the people of Ndoso maintain that it was carried away by their scheming rivals after instigating a feast that left the entire village in a drunken stupor. Whichever settlement possessed the treasure would thereafter be regarded as the navel of the Manggarai kingdom, a belief the modern-day residents of tiny Todo haven’t forgotten.

Spiderweb-shaped rice fields at Cancar village, about a 50-minute drive from Todo

Burning rice husks after the harvest

Scorch marks fleck the green-and-gold landscape

Cancar’s rice fields form part of the fertile breadbasket of western Flores

A gap through the clouds

One last look at the spiderweb rice fields

Light and shadow in the Manggarai highlands

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post 😄

    September 15, 2019
  2. I’ve never seen the spiderweb pattern to rice fields. Flores is really special.

    September 15, 2019
    • When you arrive at a village of thatched-roof houses with megalithic structures, hidden deep in the mountains, it feels as though Flores is an island that time forgot. And it’s hard to believe that this is in the same country as Jakarta with its skyscrapers and multistory malls and terrible traffic jams!

      September 18, 2019
  3. Wow, what a magical special place James. Your photographs are spectacular. Thanks for bringing us there.

    September 15, 2019
    • My pleasure, Nicole. It was easy to photograph the dances and villagers at Kampung Melo – they were so welcoming and made us feel right at home.

      September 18, 2019
  4. Amazing photos!

    September 15, 2019
    • Glad you enjoyed this post. 🙂

      September 18, 2019
  5. Thank you for taking us virtually and in words, to such a beautiful place.

    September 16, 2019
    • You’re more than welcome, Cornelia. I’d be somewhat selfish not to share the experience!

      September 18, 2019
  6. wow.. it’s so beautiful.

    September 16, 2019
    • Yes, indeed – Flores is such a gorgeous island.

      September 18, 2019
  7. I want your job! How fantastic to be able to go and visit these places and really learn about them, all while working. The spiderweb fields are so cool (it seems many of us were intrigued by those), and the rituals you learned about and were able to watch are so interesting. Happy to not see any komodo dragons! 🙂

    September 16, 2019
    • Well Lex, it’s not always like this! Most of the time I’m cooped up in an office to proofread or edit someone else’s (often badly written) account of their travels to a far-off place. The village visits in Flores only happened because of a fortuitous last-minute change to the itinerary. Fingers crossed you’ll get to visit and hike Flores someday! 🙂

      September 18, 2019
  8. Wonderful post James, and great photos, especially of the leaping men. It sounds like a fascinating place, and I always love to see the traditional rituals even if they have been packaged for tourists. Those spiderweb fields are both unique and surprising – love them. I wonder why they’re like that. Like Lexie – I want your job!

    September 17, 2019
    • Thanks so much, Alison! I reckon you’d have a ball at the village with the caci performances. Especially with all those colorful costumes and the lovely residents who weren’t at all camera shy. We didn’t get to go with a professional guide so the philosophy behind the spiderweb rice fields was never explained – even so, they were worth the long drive!

      September 18, 2019
  9. So so lucky that you’d got the chance to return to Flores. Even though I haven’t explored all of Indonesia, I believe this island really is one of the most fascinating and magical places in the country. Glad to know that despite the rapid growth of the tourism industry in Labuan Bajo, much of Flores (at least the western part of the island where you went to) still retains its charm. I love the combination of traditional architecture, colorful costumes, intricate details, and beautiful landscape here in your post. And now since you mentioned about Sumbawa, why don’t we go there sometime in the future?

    September 17, 2019
    • Ah yes, Sumbawa! I wasn’t too excited about it in the past, but ever since you showed me photos of that gorgeous old wooden palace, the island has moved significantly up my Indonesian wish list. As for western Flores, I’d love to revisit Kampung Melo and Komodo National Park (particularly Pulau Padar and Manta Point) with you in tow! Hopefully that will happen before they start launching international flights to Labuan Bajo.

      September 18, 2019
  10. James, you have such a great job! Learning about the stories and customs in these small villages is so fascinating. But why am I always so intrigued by the most macabre stories…that human-skinned drum?! Hope the 9 a.m. palm alcohol had no ill effects. I remember reluctantly downing some of this in Flores.

    September 30, 2019
    • Given the more improbable elements of the story, I have to wonder if the drum is actually made from human skin! As for the palm wine, it was almost like drinking juice. I didn’t feel a thing afterwards as I’d (luckily) had a big buffet breakfast just that morning.

      October 3, 2019
  11. This looked like such a warm and friendly trip around Flores. Everywhere you go, it seemed the locals welcomed you. Kampung Melo certainly looked ready to put on a show for you, both men and women. It is heartening to hear that performer say that his scars are marks of strength – he must have gone through quite a bit in his life, and they give it their all in risky performances. You captured the show very well right in front of the action, James. Todo looks every bit the peaceful village and your tripping over probably was just a small accident and no one stared at you too long lol 🙂

    October 5, 2019
    • Thanks Mabel! Flores is one of my favorite islands in Indonesia and it was amazing to see how traditional ways of life and age-old rituals still persist in this era of smartphones and social media. The guide at Todo actually spent a bit of time showing us videos he took of the village that had been uploaded to Youtube. 🙂

      October 22, 2019
  12. You are so right that travel takes us out of our normal habits and routines. Getting jolted out of comfort is one of the joys of leaving home. Luckily the palm moonshine tasted good. I’ve reluctantly tried the local booze many times and it is usually quite strong.

    Flores has so many cool places to see like the conical houses and the spider web rice fields. The catholic church makes it look a little like Central America.

    Great post – thanks for sharing.

    October 7, 2019
    • You’re welcome, Jeff. I’d love to go back to Flores for another overland trip – there are still parts of the island I haven’t yet been to, like 17 Islands National Park and Larantuka, a town right at the eastern end that’s known for its strong Portuguese heritage (in particular the impressive Holy Week processions).

      October 22, 2019
  13. Wonderful entry and photos – I’m not that familiar with Indonesia so it’s interesting to read up on it.

    October 31, 2019
    • Much appreciated! I’m glad I can show you a little bit of this crazy, intense, and improbable country I now call home.

      October 31, 2019
  14. James, I expected you to be brandishing a whip along with those dancers after that morning shot 🙂 What a stroke of luck to be able to visit this village. I too find the spider fields intriguing, but it is the people and their traditions that intrigue me more. Beautiful post and photos.

    November 16, 2019
    • Thank you, Madhu. 🙂 At one point the dancers did ask if any of us wanted to have a go at the whip-fighting. In the end it was a travel blogger visiting from Thailand who volunteered!

      November 16, 2019

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