It doesn’t happen often, but I am rendered speechless. I don’t even know where to begin. Sumba has proven to be much more than we hoped for- our kind of Travel Paradise.Still replete with old traditions and original village architecture, vast tracts of untouched beaches and unspoiled nature, yet dotted with a few good hotels with hot shower and cold AC. Just enough to make an exploration base and wash off the grime and sweat from the whole day exploring on dusty roads. No Western tourists, (we met less than a dozen in our 8 days on the whole island ), yet a modern 4 wheel drive car with a safe driver, working AC and a decent suspension. And a fabulous local English speaking guide, Yuliana Leda Tara, personable, sharp witted and funny. She made us laugh and she laughed hysterically at our lame jokes. Together we spend many, many hours in the car on some surprisingly straight and good roads and then some pretty curvy and bad roads. Oops!One of the few expats we met (it looks like there are also less than a dozen) said, “One time I drove my family to camp on a beach. It took me 2 hours to go 8 km. But it was worth it!” Yup, totally agree! There are very few cars on the road, but plenty of other traffic, including crazy motorcycle drivers, most of them helmet free, sometimes transporting strange loads, like huge bamboo poles, stacks of bricks or live pigs.
When we would hurl towards yet another one overtaking on a blind curve, we would scream and Yuli would say,
“Old men drive slowly, young fly.”
To which Mirek would reply,
“You have no old drivers on this island. They all die young.”
When an ambulance would pass us by hurriedly, we would ask,
“Why don’t they use the flashing lights?”
“Oh, they only use them if someone is dead.”
And Mirek would say with his typical sense of humor,
“Why? He is not in a hurry, he is dead!”
Then Yuli would howl with laughter and translate for the driver. Then they would laugh together and come up with an explanation,
“We need to know if someone is dead, because there will be a big funeral with free food for everyone!”
Since we first laid eyes on our first sumptuous Sumba ikat weaving, we wanted to go and meet the weavers. I have coveted a particular shell encrusted woven Sumbanese tapestry for some years now. I saw it in the research collection of the Threads of Life Gallery in Ubud and was immediately besotted. I took a photo of it and vowed to find another one. In their public sales gallery I also read the interesting life story and saw a picture of Sumba Queen and weaving legend Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti and said to myself, “One day I want to meet her.”
Stay tuned to see what happened.
So, it was the weaving that enticed us to Sumba and we were prepared for the quality and beauty of this still widely practiced craft, seriously verging on major art. But we were certainly unprepared for the quality and beauty and variety of Sumba beaches.I mean, we just came from some seriously spectacular beaches on New Zealand and Australia but wow, these beaches are something else. Coupled with the fact that there is usually no one else on the beach, but an occasional fisherman or a kid looking to supplement the breakfast offering of rice and water spinach. For miles and miles and miles.
While we never tired of beaches we were in serious danger of getting a traditional village overload. The first one we came to was a surprising travel back in time shocker. Prehistoric megalithic settlement-live! All the museum dioramas and artists renditions in history books we grew up on were coming to life all around us. In a reverse culture shock we strolled around while furtively looking around the back to see where Indiana Jones might emerge from.
After a while the novelty would wear off and yet, just as we said no more villages, no more bloody tombstones, we would come upon another one, a perfect village set perfectly over a lagoon and we would stand there dumbstruck all over again. For a relatively small island the variety of landscapes was astounding. In the drier East Sumba we climbed up to a plateau and a golden savannah opened in front of us. Any minute now we were expecting a giraffe or an elephant popping by. Sorry, just freewheeling falcons and wild horses.In the wetter West Sumba there were rice paddies galore. As we arrived just after the end of the Wet Season the rice harvest was in full swing,
yet some padis were already planted anew and flooded or growing fresh young vibrantly green stalks.
While Sumba is sparsely populated, along the roads there was plenty of life. I am not sure whether there are more horses, buffalos or pigs on Sumba, but cumulatively there are likely more than the human population. Horses are very important to the Sumbanese men and there is a famous Pasola event, that brings together the best and the fiercest of horsemen. Some call this racing and spear throwing, blood drawing orgy a thinly veiled excuse for tribal warfare.
The buffalos are tremendously important not only for farm work but especially for sacrifices. New house, new wife, dead relative, buffalos are to be sacrificed. Pigs were everywhere, under every house in the village. Big potbellied sows walking around jauntily through the village and across the road, little piglets playing together. Dogs, chickens and roosters rounded the picture, and in the absence of toys they were constant play toys for the boys.In fact children on Sumba are likely one of the last free range kids in the world. In the whole time we were there we have not seen one single toy. Not even made out of wood. Sticks, stones, flowers, shells, sand, water. Typically they are also not mollycoddled, they work and help, too. Herding buffalos, washing horses, carrying water, wood and younger siblings. They go hungry at times and they are poor but they cry little and laugh a lot. Is it because they don’t want anything? They do not even know what to want. Outside of main towns there are no TVs, no advertising, no stores, nothing to buy. A few simple stalls here or there by the side of the road sell petrol by the bottle, some tomatoes or a few bunches of bananas. You bet those kids never complain when they get a bowl of rice and on a lucky day some dried fish on top of it.With the houses dark and hot, all the life is lived outside. There is a lot of sitting around on the front porch and watching the world go by. Or Happily waving at us as we pass by.
I think Sumba has the best light, that bathes everything in a special glow. With not a single factory on the island and few cars it could be the lack of pollution? I can’t explain it. It also has fabulous clouds. Maybe it was the tinted windows on the car that made them pop. You be the judge.