Indonesia

The Land That Time Forgot

Sumba is an island adrift, a castaway from the modern world. Here, priests predict the fates of sick children through the entrails of slaughtered chickens, colossal megaliths house the dead and headhunting is remembered by the living.

It is also a place that stuns the senses. Soaring and spectacular homes built of bamboo and grass; fascinating rituals untouched by the outside world; endless and empty white beaches. It is a rich travel experience, yet amazingly few tourists make it here. The numbers each year are counted in the hundreds.

Sumba is one of the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia. Just an hour by plane from Bali, getting here is easy, moving around is more challenging.
On my first day I travelled by motorbike. It’s hard going. Some roads are good, most aren’t, many are just rough tracks. Finding traditional villages without basic Indonesian is almost impossible. The island has five other languages, not mere dialects. A guide is crucial …….and can save your neck.
Ratenggarro in the Kodi region is the most amazing example of a traditional Sumbanese village. The homes are towering pinnacles rising almost vertically up to the sky. image Ratenggaro’s position is breathtaking. The settlement stands above a tidal inlet and the wild waves of the Indian Ocean. To its east and west are glorious but deserted beaches. Most villages were built with defence in mind.

Arrival in a Sumbanese village is a surreal experience. A journey back in time. Some children scream and wave others stand in mummified silence, slack-jawed by the rarest of sights, a western tourist.
The adults are cautious and unwelcoming, even with a guide from the region. Gifts of betel nuts, a Sumbanese favourite, are handed over to the village elder along with a few cigarettes and a little cash. Slowly, in every village, the atmosphere eased and the people became friendly and inquisitive.
Their homes are built on three levels, animals on the ground floor, humans the next and finally the Marapu, or ancestral spirits, in the cathedral like spires.
Marapu is the island’s ancient religious belief system. It is fundamental to the way they live. Ratos, village priests, read signs through dead animals or by talking to rocks. Some innocuous stones are at the heart of Marapu beliefs. Standing on these can have serious consequences. The spirits sometimes occupy corners of the buildings. Venturing too close is also not a trivial event.
(More on them in the next blog).
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The houses are based around four pillars of wood, each intricately carved. Status symbols of buffalo horns and the jaw bones of pigs line some walls.
The homes and the lives of the villagers are defined by the dark. Little light penetrates the bamboo walls. In the centre of the houses are open fireplaces for cooking. The smell of smoke infects everything. Bedrooms are small, semi-partioned with a basic rush mat on the uneven bamboo floors for sleeping. Food and water are often short and government aid is crucial. Malnutrition and malaria are both fatal here. It is Bronze Age living.
Outside the homes are the megaliths. Mammoth rocks weighing many tons which are mausoleums for the dead, new and old. Each carries carvings of spiritual symbols. In ancient days when members of the royal families died servants would be sacrificed as well to continue their roles in the afterlife. They are immense and it is not uncommon for more than a hundred men to be required to haul them into position. image
Villages also feature an andung, ceremonial trees where the heads of enemies were hung. Headhunting officially ceased about 50 years ago, although some darkly suggest 30 years is more accurate. Violence between clans does still erupt and can be fierce. Just over a decade ago 3000 men stormed one town in a dispute and dozens of people died horrific deaths. image

In traditional areas most Sumbanese men still carry long sword-like knives. Essentially for working in crop fields they are also lethal weapons. Arguments which end in extreme violence do still happen. Land disputes are a particular problem. But for tourists Sumba is safe. Beyond that is is also a unique place that offers a window into a distant past. imageimage

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Harry The Crocodile – Ladykiller

It’s a slow night in paradise and the prospects aren’t looking good. So poor in fact that the waiter gives up, sits down at my table and starts to talk.
He is young, fit and has the smile and swagger of a loveable rogue.
I ask about his job. He is 28 years old and has been a waiter for seven years. When I learn he earns just $80 a month I give him my number one sympathetic look.
The rogue dismissively waves it away. He tells me that he is doing fine, courtesy of his “other work.”

Harry The Crocodile

Harry The Crocodile

I give him a questioning look and he leans in a little towards me, drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and tells me, “I am a crocodile.”
He pronounces it trocodile but when he uses his arms to mimic the closing jaws of a croc I get his meaning, although I am still non the wiser.
Seeing my perplexed look he smiles, drops his voice still further and proudly says to me, “You call it gigolo.”

Harry, the name he uses for the ladies, begins his story.
He was born and raised here on Gili Air, one of three small islands off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. As a young guy he realized many female tourists were looking for a holiday romance and were happy to splash the cash on local guys who made them feel good.
Harry saw a chance to improve his lot and undertook two years of what he calls self training. “I had to learn to speak good English, develop my body and work out how to treat the ladies in a special way.” Since then his income has rocketed.
“They pay for everything. Food, drink, parties and we have a very good time. When their holiday is finished they never leave without giving me something.”
“Never?” I ask. “Never,” he insists and his chest thrusts out with male pride. One thousand Euros is his best gift and he assures me that “gift” is the correct word. He never demands money. Doesn’t need too. That’s for the amateurs.

When night falls crocodiles come out to play

When night falls crocodiles come out to play

“I give them lots of fun. I say very special things to them and it makes them feel great. They are always grateful.”
He has his rules. No girls in their early 20s, “they have no money.” Late 20s sometimes but women in their 30s and 40s are the best.
I ask how he meets them. He calls it “fishing”. He does a slow fisherman’s cast into the restaurant and his eyes work the room. This is his territory and he oozes confidence. He will spend hours flirting. If any ladies take his bait he tells them to meet him at midnight, when his restaurant work is done, and he will take them to see turtles.

Does that line really work? I am a little doubtful.  Harry repeats his strongest clamping  jaws action shouts SNAP and let’s out his roguish laugh.
But he’s not alone. He tells me there are 25 crocodiles on the island. Competition is strong and he points out two other crocs in his restaurant with a couple of 30-something American women.
I decide, in the interests of research you understand, to delve into murky waters. I ask Harry if he  sleeps with many of the women? He snorts at my innocence and says all of them.

I can’t resist and ask him for numbers. Heading toward 30 this year, he tells me. I am stunned and highly skeptical. But later I see the evidence before my very eyes. The American women are leaving but their crocs stay by the bar. “Will you please come and dance with me later? Please,” implores one of the girls. “For you I will try to move the moon”, is the reply. In that brief exchange is all the proof I need.
It’s far from clear whether the women Harry meets are part of a growing trend of female sex tourism, or just travellers merely open to a holiday romance and happy at the end to show their gratitude. I ask The Crocodile about their intent and he rocks his shoulders in a “bit of both” kind of answer.
Just over the water in Bali a 2010 documentary film called Cowboys In Paradise followed the so-called “Kuta cowboys”, young guys who make a living through female sex tourism. The authorities were angered and embarrassed by the movie and arrested 28 of the beach boys, although all were later released. In Bali it is a sizeable and growing business.

Back in the restaurantP1000457 Harry The Crocodile is in full flow. He takes me through his repertoire. Flowers and massages are high on his list. Then comes the gigolo’s pearls of wisdom. “Take it slow. Start at number ten and work your way very slowly to number one. No rushing. That’s why young men are no good. Too quick.”

Wham, bang, thank you ma’am, I ask him? He doesn’t know the phrase but he likes it and repeats it mantra style. I point out that he is saying “man” instead of ma’am and that does make rather a difference. He is shocked when he realizes the implication of his misused language.

I eventually thank Harry for the most unexpected night of my journey so far. I also apologise for keeping him talking for an hour and hope he hasn’t missed a catch. “No good tonight. I don’t feel strong. You have to be strong for the ladies.” In the interest of taste and decency I don’t ask him to elaborate.
Travel throws up many amazing characters. This encounter is high up on the memorable list. It will be a long time before I forget how I got up close and very personal with  the awesome power of  Harry the Crocodile.

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Staring Death In The Face

In death we are all equal. But there is a place in northern Bali where what follows sets it apart from the world. A dark place, home to an ancient people with an equally dark reputation, where you can literally stare death in the face.
In Trunyan there is neither burial nor cremation. The dead are taken from the village by boat to a small clearing around the cove. Bodies are partially covered with a thin white cloth, placed under a fragile bamboo cage and simply left. The cadaver is at the mercy of nature and the elements. It is ravaged, rots and decomposes until just the skeleton remains.
Only 11 bodies can lay there. When the space is needed skulls are removed and placed trophy-like on stone shelves. The rest of the bones are discarded, often just casually tossed on the fringes of the clearing. To the Bali Aga, or Original Balinese, all that matters is the soul and that has long since departed.
The people are the aborigines of Bali. Now they account for only two percent of the population. They were usurped by the Hindu-Javanese who came to the island in the 13th century and flourished. The Bali Aga retreated physically and mentally into isolated communities and remain a breed apart. P1000235c
Trunyan itself sits on the eastern side of a mighty crater lake across from Mount Batur, an active volcano. A rock wall rises sheer behind the village. Beyond that is Mount Agung, Bali’s highest mountain and a home to the Gods.
The Batur caldera is understandably popular with tourists but only a sparse few venture around the lake to Trunyan. The village’s contradiction is to have an ugly reputation while all around is great natural beauty.
Until compartively recently the only way in was to hire oarsmen to row you across the lake. There are legendary tales of the boatmen stopping half way and threatening startled tourists if they didn’t pay a hugely inflated price. For those that made it to Trunyan they were often confronted by aggressive begging, exorbitant prices and an intimidating atmosphere.
A couple of years ago a narrow, potholed and twisting road was opened around the lake. The Bali Aga asked the Indonesian tourism authorities for help in promoting the village to tourists. Strict promises to change their ways were demanded in return. Prices were to be fixed and transparent and visitors were not to be harmed.
So it was I rode my motorbike along the “road” to the village and met Daro, a young man with good English and a desperate desire to promote his birthplace. He explained that Trunyan actually has three cemeteries. The first, Sema Bantas, is for people who died unnatural deaths. Here, bodies are buried in unmarked shallow graves but without ceremony. The second was the “baby cemetery”, Sema Nguda. A place for the young and the unmarried of any age. Finally, Sema Wayah, the cemetery for which Trunyan is known.P1000294c
I am shown the price list for the boat to the main cemetery, proof that everything is now open and above board. At more than $20 it is very expensive for Bali. I pay and am immediately told I must now make a “donation” for the cemetery. There is no option. The oarsman set off on a quiet journey and soon point out the path leading into dense growth, darkness and my date with the dead.
The cemetery is in a small clearing, quietness is all pervasive. I am alone and take a few reverential paces towards the bamboo tombs. I peer cautiously inside the first and there above a decaying tangle of cloth is a skull. It lies mouth wide open in a kind of petrified trance. No other bones are visible. There is a similar sight in the next couple of bamboo chambers. But at the far end is the latest body. It has been there three months. Time has already taken its toll. The flesh has mercifully gone. Only a few parts of the skeleton are visible and nearest to me the sandals that once were on feet.
Mounds of rubbish lie on the fringes of the main cemetery and here and there a bone or two. It sounds unsettling but for the Bali Aga the body is nothing. Sentimentality is for the soul.P1000301c
For all the expectation of what the cemetery experience would be like the anticipation was more disturbing than the reality. I have a surprisingly odd feeling of almost indifference. This may be down to an acceptance of the villagers’ belief in animism.
The absence of a new corpse with flesh also helped. As did the remarkable fact that the cemetery never has the smell of death. A giant Taru Menyan tree, from which the village takes its name, stands in the corner, its sweet fragrance and its thick, spreading roots are believed to counter the odours. Around the cove the “baby cemetery” is not blessed with a similar tree. I am told I cannot see it.”We do not go ourselves except to take bodies,” Daro had told me. “The smell is terrible. It is too much”.
After 15 minutes I am rowed back to the village and I begin to comprehend my ambiguity. The Bali Aga in their understandable wish to earn the tourist dollar are clumsily trying to create what marketeers would call “an experience”.
The old rickety cemetery landing stage has been replaced by a new structure which includes a toilet block and a couple of other rooms. As I am being rowed in, on cue, a villager began playing some traditional but bizzarely upbeat music. At the cemetery skulls had been placed on either side of the entrance and for some unfathomable reason cigarettes placed around them. And while bones are discarded with rubbish around the edges of the graveyard the most prominent are a pair of femurs nicely laid out so tourists can’t miss them.P1000316

Trunyan is a fascinating place and the Bali Aga are truly different. But I’m left with a sense that their ancient culture is now being melded into the early makings of a tourist show. The villagers of Trunyan have realised that their traditions play directly to our Western fears of death and the macabre. They know we are fearful yet intrigued. But in their naivety there is a danger that they will turn Trunyan into a kind of Disney of death.

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My Day As A Hindu

I am sat cross legged in awed and silent contemplation. Only the soft rhythms of a Holy Man’s handbell filter through the silence. When the ringing stops I clasp my hands prayer like and raise them slowly above my head. In my palms I gently rub flower petals and make my humble gesture to the Gods.

The Holy Man makes his way through the faithful gathered in the temple and stops before me. His stern eyes bore down on me and take in my sarong, sash and the udeng on my head. With somber purpose he drops sacred water in my hands and commands me to drink. More water is splashed on my head and as the trickles ease down my face the Holy Man places rice on my damp forehead. Grains are also placed in my hands and I am told to eat. With that he turns and walks away. This is the signal that the ceremony is over and with it my day as a Hindu.

P1000055a The invitation to the Full Moon Ceremony came from a Balinese family. I had been staying with them a few days. The home stay was just $20 a night for room and breakfast. The early signs had not been encouraging. Their village, like many in Bali, was pockmarked by mounds of  rubbish tossed mindlessly and at random. The Balinese are not enthusiastic about waste management. You’ll never see the recycling bin outside on a Tuesday……or any other day for that matter. But driving into the family compound was like entering a new world. Everything meticulously clean, nothing out of place. My quarters were newly built with incredibly ornate doors and beautiful tiles. It was pristine.

Over four days the two brothers, their wives, their two children and other friends and relations took me into their family and I took them into my heart. Their English was limited but they were desperate to improve. At nights we would gather on my verandah, all of us sat on the floor passing away easy hours with attempted talk and much laughter. They loved my iPad, particularly the camera and the “Speak Indonesian” App. There would be howls of laughter whenever I pointed to myself and then played the pronunciations of  “I am 30” and “Do you have an English menu”. Through the course of these evenings other people would come and go, some practising their English others just sitting and being part of a gentle family evening in the warm caress of a Bali night. The generosity and kindness of their collective embrace touched me deeply.

The family invited me to return for the full moon ceremony, purnama, one of their favourites. So a few days later  I was back.

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I was given traditional Balinese dress to wear which I was told was compulsory. There was a choice of sarongs, a sash for my waist, an udeng for my head and a shirt. I fiddled around for a while, checked myself in the mirror and was pleasantly surprised with the results. I knew the whole extended family was waiting outside my room so out I went and strutted myself catwalk style.

The screams and shrieks almost burst my eardrums. The women in particular were almost in hysterics. It was clear I was the new village idiot in a clown costume. After a minute or two Made came to my rescue, took me inside and dressed me properly in Balinese style. It turns out the choice of sarongs wasn’t actually a choice at all, both were to be worn and in a very specific way. The sash I used as a cumberbund around my waist should have been folded in half and worn under the shirt. As for the udeng it’s best nothing more is said.

Suitably re-arranged we set off for the ceremony. An hour later we are at Tampak Siring Temple, 30 minutes north of Ubud and one of only two holy water spring temples in Bali. We joined a throng at a small gate waiting to enter the cleansing area. Finally we were in. I stood on the edge while the family, young and old, entered the cool water and joined hundreds of others in semi orderly lines  snaking to a line of spouts to purify themselves. After thirty minutes  they were tightly packed in a heaving

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mass of bodies. The children and elderly often disappear from view. The intensity increases as they inch towards the gushing water. It looks frantic but as each finally reaches their goal and submerge themselves they reappear with profound joy on their faces. Their spirits immediately purified and their souls alight with happiness. It is an amazing spectacle. Two more smaller pools follow to complete the process and the family finally leave the water, cold but exuberant.

After drying and changing into their finest clothes we go to the temple. The few tourists wearing temporary sarongs are stood just behind a rope where a sign reads “Prayers only allowed beyond here”. I dutifully stop and observe. Moments later Agung and Made return, guide me past the rope and into the inner prayer area. The women and children are already kneeling along with sixty or so others. The men join them and the Holy P1000177Man begins ringing his bell. Prayers have started. I stand solemnly and respectfully at the back. Shortly Puta and Ari turn and beckon me. At first I pretend not to notice them but they are insistent. I move with a little trepidation and sit behind them in the third row of the faithful. Moments later the women and daughter Ita part and signal me to move forward. I am frozen to the spot until the men also make space and move me forward. I am now sat cross legged on my own at the very front. The Holy Man begins his prayer instructions. I am at a loss with nobody ahead or besides to follow. Balinese Hindus have a range of deities and at this moment I am in dread that up in suarga, their heaven, they will not be best happy with me. Sensing and seeing my difficulties Agung and Isma move to join me at the front and guide me through the ceremony.

I place a petal behind my ear and more in my palms. I offer up my hands to the Gods and I say a silent prayer for the family. I follow that with an earnest wish that the Holy Man, who is now heading towards me, is not about to punish my heresy and cast me down to bhur, or hell, where the demons live and Hindus believe our spirits go as punishment for misdeeds on earth.

P1000219Of course, the Holy Man does nothing of the kind. I simply follow his instructions and with that the ceremony ends.

Many strict Hindus will fast on purnama, full moon day. My family don’t and we head off for a Balinese picnic by the river. We sit around in our fineries, eat simple food and delight in the day and each other. I quietly watch them. I see their ease with each other, their contentment with the world and I pray that the Gods send them every ounce of health and happiness they have to spare, and a little bit more.

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It was only a matter of time….

You can’t expect to travel the world without some bumps along the way. But even by my own accident prone standards this one is a record. Just eighteen hours after arriving in Bali disaster struck.

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The pink beast

I had rented a scooter for $5 a day. A bargain, even if the beast was painted in wild pink  and emblazoned with the name B***tard! My public humiliation was complete when they handed me a helmet that Biggles would have happily sported in the First World War.

An hour later I was on a narrow stretch of potholed bitumen crammed with other bikers. Suddenly an oncoming scooter wobbled wickedly on the far side of the road, lurched violently right and crashed to the ground. Myself and another rider tried to swerve, but it was too late. I slid 10 metres along the floor on my knees, arms and elbows before coming to a rest with the pink b***tard on top of me.

All hell broke lose. Wobbly, who turned out to be a young Aussie girl 10 minutes into her first ever scooter ride, was in hysterics. The Balinese rider was threatening Armageddon and I sat there painting the road red with my blood. Well, not quite, but large chunks of skin were hideously grazed and bloody. My machine was badly scratched along its front and right hand side.

But in adversity you find the best in humanity. A United Nations of people set about putting me back together again.

Back at my hotel I’d met Debbie and Paul, an English couple from Port Sunlight on Merseyside.

Debbie - The angel of mercy

Debbie – The angel of mercy

Debbie is a nurse. She did an examination and prescribed lots of good advice. Two more examinations have followed. Tang Xiaowen and Chu Qung from Singapore offered sympathy, their emails and an invitation to hook up whenever I am over there.
Next came Norina from Uma Karan, the fabulous boutique hotel I am staying at in Seminyak. Although I now had several creams and sprays from the local pharmacy Norina was still concerned. She went and bought me a Chinese healing potion. She paid for it out of her own pocket and absolutely refused to take a cent for it.
Now it was time to front up to Bali Radiance bike hire company, to confess my sins. Norina had offered to call and negotiate damage costs but I decided to do my own dirty work.

At first there were frowns and shaking heads. A price of 500,000 Rps ($50) was proposed with an accompanying sheepish grin. I counter offered and after a series of friendly and smiling exchanges we agreed on 120,000 Rps or $12. They were happy and so was I. Could you imagine Mr Hertz or Mrs Avis being so accommodating? Bali Radiance will forever be my scooter hire company of choice in Seminyak!

And finally there was Marie. Originally from Mauritius, she arrived in Bali via Australia in the mid 2000s and runs her own very successful hair and beauty business here. I had been given her name by my hairdresser Debbie back in Noosa. Over some fantastic food and drink, some of it given to us free of charge by the Greek manager and French restaurant owner, she painted a picture of Bali for me. It was a wonderful night to cap off a memorable 24 hours.

It looks worse than it is

It looks worse than it is

So here I am. A little battered and bruised, short of some skin, but so happy and so grateful to be in the caring company of strangers from all over the world.
With the Boston bombings, threats of nuclear wars and all manner of depressing issues in the news this week, it’s easy to forget our planet is full of the most amazingly decent and kind people.

Anyway, time to scoot. The pink b***tard is all revved up and ready to roll again.

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