Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

November 1 - 15 2012 / Indonesia: Bali to Australia

In Which We See Our Ninth Total Solar Eclipse
Part 3 - Horses! Funerary Village! Dancing! Market!

Part 3 - Horses! Funerary Village! Dancing! Market!

In the morning our little ship docked at Sumba Island.   John decides to stay home and I am glad, because the descriptions of what we are going to do do not sound like his kind of thing, and also he is still not feeling quite right. 

We load onto the buses, and this time I make sure to be at the front.   Our guide on the bus, Yan, is a smart, animated man who it turns out is the superintendent of schools in this part of Sumba Island.  He has a master’s degree in education and two sons who attend university in Java, which is the only university kids can go to from here.  He tells us how happy he is to be speaking English, practicing, since he learned it in a course but has no one to speak it with at home.  English, the knowledge of it, is so vital a skill, all over the world, and how happy I am that I learned such a difficult language as a baby. 

Happy, too, that I live in a temperate climate; those who live in hot places such as this cannot work quickly, accomplish tasks quickly, for they must move slowly, and there are many obstacles of the landscape in their way. 

Yan explains—maybe—about three levels of society here in Sumba, and about clans and marriage customs, though by the time the day is over I am pretty sure that I learned nothing “true.”  When I get home to my home and my machine I will google all this and find whatever seems to be the “truth.”

All us passengers gather at a beautiful beach, white sand, cornflower blue sea, and overhanging palms.  We would have anchored here and zodiacked in, except that instead in order to evacuate a very ill passenger we had to dock in town. 

There are horsemen, on small horses, in the road ahead of us.  All the buses pull onto the beach and when we are all gathered there the horsemen race their horses along the beach in front of us, with much hollering and shouting.  They sit their mounts like the Mongolians, straight up, barely moving, and the small horses are spirited and lively.  It’s a pretty sight.  Everybody takes pictures, and then the horsemen gather in a small group, and they look at us and we look at them.  Unlike yesterday, none of them uses a cellphone to take our picture, but we take plenty of them.   The men are compact and dark, their features sharp and handsome in a fierce kind of way.   Their horses, restless, paw and dig the sand.

One of the buses gets stuck in the sand.  A group of our men try to push it out, but to no avail.  I guess there is a backup bus.

The group is divided in half, and my half drives for an hour or so across an increasingly desolated landscape, dry brush and dry hills, here and there a dwelling with its boma [an enclosing fence] of sticks, some long since grown into small trees, but nothing in leaf now in the dry.
At length the buses turn from the paved road onto a narrow rough track.  Presently there’s a sudden stop—our new guide, Steven there, yells at our driver to STOP!  We are to walk up the dry path along the small hill there, to get to whatever it is we are supposed to see.

The path passes through odd rock fields, similar to some of those we saw in Mongolia, with sprinkles or sprays of black rocks of uniform size, and not clear how they got there.  These islands are all volcanic I guess, and this looks like basalt, but there’s no sign of a volcano anywhere around and these rocks look as if they just arrived here.  Nobody to ask.

Everything on either side is dry and sere.  There is one big tree, though, and its shade is welcome.  Some of the tree trunks have large cactus pads affixed around them, and we’re told this is to keep kids from climbing up the trunks to obtain the fruit of the trees.  Now I doubt this—there’s no fruit, and precious few kids.  I think this was made up, like so much of what the guides tell us.

Well, maybe not made up, deliberately I mean, but the best they know, or what they have learned that foreigners like to hear.  They do not like to admit ignorance—who does? not I—and are loathe to disappoint.  Plus of course there is a severe language barrier; one of the Aussie guys, when I asked about this, about why we got so many conflicting stories, says, well, the local guides are not really guides, they are whoever can speak English around here.

The group goes single file under a square entry port, and we’re greeted by an energetically barking small white dog on a wall.  He, and his mates, turn out to be the most energetic beings at this place. 

This is, I believe I understood, a kind of funerary village.  There are a number of the traditional houses, thatched, on low stilts, rectangular, and with a peculiar shape to the roof: on top a tall four-sided cone, then a set of four eaves, and then the straight walls.  The guide explains that you store your valuables in the cone, you know, your silver and gold stuff, and then there’s the living space, with the men sleeping on one side and the women on the other , two or three families in each house), and in there too are kept the mummified bodies of your dead, and then there is storage below. 

There are also a number of head-high, well-worked black stone slabs, thick ones balanced on low pillars of the same.   Apparently the dead are eventually buried under these, with enormous ceremony.  The funeral is the most important ceremony of your life, the guide says, with lots of animals sacrificed and maybe a servant too, discreetly.  The sacrificed animals are tossed away, and not eaten.  The religion here is a kind of animism, and some ancestor veneration.  At one point the guide says, oh, we can’t eat those animals because we believe they might be our ancestors.

Hmmm.  Too many inconsistences for me.  I try to find out how old all this is.  Hundreds of years, he says.  Do they still do things this way?  Oh yes. 


The people who live in this village don’t work; those who live in modern houses down in that lush valley bring food to them.  But they have to go down there to get water.  Hm, again.  Later another passenger tells me that their guide said nobody actually lives in this place, and that seems more true to me, that maybe the people we see are only here because of us.

A thin man comes near us.  He is wearing glasses and a pale color of head wrap.  He stares at us for a while, ignored by the speaking guide, then walks away and comes back with some small object, I guess a carving of some sort.

There are a few children and men staring at us, sitting on a rock.  Nobody waves, nobody greets us, very different behavior from the other village we visited, and even from the behavior of people we pass along the road—most of whom smile and wave.

We move a bit more into the area of houses and tombs.  Dogs bark loudly but do not get up.  A few people are sitting in a row on the floor of one house, with their small wares laid out hopefully.   There are chickens and a big pile of thatching.  No smiles, little talking.  A few of our people examine the goods, but I do not think anyone buys.  I hear some comments about quality.  I have to laugh: what the hell do they think?   What do they imagine these people can do?

Now I am ashamed and sorry that I did not buy anything.

Our people line up in front of the seated line of residents, and stick their cameras in the faces.  It is a stunning, ghastly display of, if not cultural insensitivity, then at least of terrible manners.  I get at right angles to try to take a picture of this monstrous rudeness.

Finally we are to go.  I am happy to leave this weirdly listless place.  The people do not look healthy in either body or mind. 

On the drive back to the ship (that bus is seen to be stuck in the sand, still—perhaps it will die there) the guide makes a long explanation of the bridal dowry customs, says he had to pay 31 horses and buffalo for his wife, and all his friends and relations helped him, and now he has to pay back, and already has for three of them.  If the groom can’t pay the price, he says, then he will become a slave of his father-in-law.  One of our number attempts to get at the truth of this, quite unsuccessfully.  What about in the cities? he asks.  They don’t  need horses and buffaloes in the cities, what do they do?   More confusion.

Later, on the ship, I talk to our head Aussie guide about all this.  He says working as a guide in SE Asia is the hardest he’s ever done, because the local guides just present this inconsistent information, and the English is not great either.  I have experienced this kind of thing myself, in other places, it’s quite true—but never to quite such a wonderful degree of blatant inconsistency.  Everybody’s guides seem to have told them different things.   Oh well.

When I get back to the ship, miraculously we have had an email from our precious daughter Susannah, delivered successfully to the ship’s system.  They are okay, five days and counting with no power, no school, no gas, and food rapidly disappearing.  Their town is handing out bags of ice for refrigeration, and promises National Guard with paper ballots for the election.  Craig, her husband, that clever hero man, has rigged up their car battery so as to allow their furnace to work, and has done the same for families along their street.  He will be a hero since the temperature is going below freezing every night.

She says  our other daughter is ok, but that our condo mate called and part of our fence is down, not sure if she was talking about our brand-new fence or the one for which the neighbors are responsible.

We are invited to dinner with UCBerkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko and his wife Noelle.  Nice conversation with Alex, with whom we have now traveled many times.  He is very frazzled because the ship’s internet connection is unusable, and he has many University responsibilities which he is therefore unable to meet.  We, for our part, can use neither our computer nor our phones, and so we have not been in direct contact with home for many days now.   Anyhow, the dinner is pleasant, and we sleep well afterwards. 

It’s a sea day today.  I have started casing the ship to see where we are going to be able to see the eclipse in any decent way.  Slim pickings.  It is going to be a sunrise one, so the angle will be very low.   We’re told, oh we will line up at the railings along the narrow decks.  Yeah, and get somebody’s stupid camera held out at arm’s length blocking my view.

Just the kind of issue I get wound up about.

The election is tomorrow, and there are 30-40,000 homeless people in New York who are not thinking about voting.  Not to mention the people in New Jersey, Connecticut, and the south, buried under several feet of snow.  The tv news, what we get of it on the BBC, says it is “too close to call.”  I can hardly bear this waiting. 

This morning we dock at Alor.  In the tiny harbor are several hulkish craft, one a strange combination of what appears to be a kind of ferry, married to a long narrow hull with a hugely-elongated bowsprit; its furled sail of blue and white checks .   A number of indolent fellows lay about on it, watching us with some interest.   We are fine entertainment it seems.

First to a museum, presented with earnest pride .  On display in its several dark halls are some of the large mysterious bronze drums, called moko, so important to the local people.  On one of them, a huge affair about a yard high, are four of the same odd belly-less frogs of which I bought one in Hanoi at an antiques place, and which I’ve seen on the same sort of drum at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.   What is it doing here?   [Ha!  It turns out that some of the decorations on these drums are similar to designs from SE Asia including those from a culture found in Vietnam and China around 700 BC.]  There are other musical instruments, and some fabrics.  I had expected to love the fabrics, the ikat, but I don’t.  A good thing I guess since I do not want to be buying anything new. 

They give us a little pamphlet about the museum.  In it are explained the responsibilities they have undertaken, as follows:

•  As a place where we can mirror our own self, to know who are we, how we can arise and maturate
• Giving explanation about where is our position in history development
• Explaining our identity through our own product object
• Furnishing a pride and self-conception
• Supporting educational aspect, and
• Bolstering tourism field

Next it’s to the market, a warren of shaded stalls and the folks with their wares so attractively arranged.  Of course I take pictures; everybody seems perfectly happy to have me do this, smiling and giving me the thumbs up, saying thank you. One glorious array begins with small eggplant, then tomatoes, and two colors of peppers, red and orange.  Then there are some carefully-arranged green beans next to all this.  I love markets.  There are stalls with clothing, and sundries such as Pepsodent toothpaste.  At a separate market we find the fish, shining piles of tiny sardine fish, rows of bristle tailed silver and blue tuna, slabs of what look like swordfish steaks, and your odd head or fin here and there. 

There’s raw betel nut, which everyone chews, and which turns out to be a sort of long green bean-like thing, with little bumps on it.   You break off a length and dip it in some kind of white powder (lime it turns out), and chew it.

There are eggs, regular chicken eggs in pasteboard racks that hold perhaps three dozen, and little tiny speckled ones too.  What kind of eggs are those?  I ask our guide.  Bird eggs.  Yes, but what kind of bird?  How big is the bird?  What does it look like? I try.  No dice.  A Bird.

I take a lot of pictures.

We pick our way carefully across the street (they drive on the wrong side here, and the heavily-helmeted motorbikers are everywhere, along with little jitney buses with strange English words on them).  More driving, out of town, neat little concrete houses on each side shaded by tall banana trees.  

The buses can’t get up the hill to the “restoration” village, so we all get out and walk.  It’s tough going; the hill is steep and covered in crushed rocks.  It’s hot.   It’s very, very hot.

Up at the top, our group sits on bamboo benches and is given a performance of some play-fighting and some dancing and singing.  Women, some quite young and some with large white hair, dance in a careful choreography of jingling ankles and arms neatly around each other.  The men, wearing handsome chicken and other feather headdress and looking quite fierce, carry bows and arrows and do a lot of shouting and posturing.  The headdresses remind me of New Guinea, which is not surprising since we are coming towards it.  After the folks do their dance, we tourists are invited to dance with them, and some do, quite well I thought, especially since it isn’t something I know I could do—simple yet an odd rhythm. 

Then the row of hopeful vendors selling necklaces, shells, fabric, ankle bracelets (she wanted ten dollars for one, sorry no thanks), baskets.  Slingshots!   Nothing I want.  [Later, I see how totally stupid I was not to buy a pair of those ankle bracelets.  Stupid, stupid.]

Finally back down the treacherous road to the buses, and home.  They go snorkeling this afternoon but not I.   Shower, nap.  Restoration, thought-gathering.

John and I talk a bit about the trip, about the difficulties our travel company will have had in arranging  it.  They have to take what they can get, and there are no ways of having natural history walks or anything like that I guess.  The main thing is the eclipse, and getting us from Bali to there, and what shall we do along the way, and here’s this company, they are supposed to be a good vendor, so we’ll just go with them.   Too much show-for-the-tourists for us, though.  Nothing much real.  The market, and of course the Dragons, and that’s been it.

Later, I finally figure out that this is what they want to show us, this is what they want to show off to us, not their commonplaces, but the finest things they can.  I’m ashamed that it took me so long to figure this out.  The fact that it wasn’t my favorite kind of thing is beside the point.   In my slowness to grasp this, I am just as dense and offensive as the guy who bitched about the trash earlier, and why didn’t they throw it away.

It is now Election Day at home.  In 24 hours we will know.   I can hardly stand it.   How I wish I could talk to our daughters.  More waiting, waiting, waiting.