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,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 find that 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. ◊