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Waingapu, Sumba

Written on: Sunday July 20th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

In Ende I should have had a short four hour wait for my ferry to arrive to take me on the eight hour journey across to Sumba. There are numerous huge ferries run by the Pelni company that take passengers all around the many Indonesian islands, and I was quite looking forward to my overnight trip aboard one of these ships. I'd brought an economy ticket for less than a fiver and considered that the short eight hour trip would be a doddle. At 7pm, the scheduled departure time, the boat hadn't even arrived let alone left, a regular occurrence I later found out, so I took this opportunity to take an ojek to the Telcom building and make a phone call to my Mum who had no idea for the past three weeks where on earth I was. You might say she was quite relieved to hear that I was still alive and not held captive by pirates being used as their own private sex slave. I too was quite pleased this wasn't the case.About to head back to the harbour after some food I met a young man and women who were studying English at the local university and the man upon speaking with me offered to drop me back at the harbour for free if I would allow them to accompany me and to speak with me in English. Having not much else to do I was only too happy to oblige. Leaving my bags with the cheery security staff, the couple then invited me to join them at the girl's home to meet her brother and mother and father. It was great once again to meet real, genuine people who didn't want me to go somewhere with them just so they could fleece me of some rupiah, but only wanted my company and to speak a little English with me. Once at the house and introduced to the family the father sent one of the brother's friends off to get some sugar and biscuits and we all sat out on the porch, joined by half of the village who had become rather over-excited by a Whitey being there. We all talked, laughed and swapped stories for an hour an a half before the horn was sounded by my boat, the Awu, to signal its arrival in port. Before leaving, the mother presented me with an ikat embroidered blanket as a gift. They were lovely people and I'll never forget their generosity and hospitality that they showed me in my short time in Ende.The young couple escorted back to the harbour, along with their brother and insisted on waiting with me until I was able to board the boat. We waited for at least another hour in the swarm of people that had gathered by the entrance up the jetty to where the gigantic boat lay in wait. Squashed between hundreds of Indonesians I shuffled my way towards the ship, grabbing hold of somebody's wrist and wrenching it sideways as it pushed its way in to my pocket to steal whatever it was it could find. Unfortunately the experience didn't get much better once I had forced my way on to the boat and turned out to be my lowest point on all my trip so far. Arriving on deck I was continuously pushed further in to the ship, and was directed downstairs to the economy class area. Bumping people with my backpacks strapped on front and back I wandered around a few cabin areas where they had a steel raised area, about 2 feet from the ground with people and baggage laid out across them. I was tired and worn out after standing for so long, being pushed this way and that with all my baggage hanging from my body for the past two hours. All I wanted to do was find an area to lie down and pass out for the entire journey to Sumba so when I asked in each cabin area if I could lay down in the vacant spot and got the continuous reply of 'No, it's taken' followed by a chorus of laughter and grins at me and shouts in Indonesian which I couldn't understand my morale began to wither. I was the only non-Indonesian on the ferry and while it seemed everyone on board was revelling in me being there and having problems finding somewhere to lie I was not enjoying it one little bit. Eventually I found an area which appeared to be free. I threw my bags down, relieved to take the weight from my shoulders and sat on the solid steel surface. Within seconds all of the other passengers in this particular cabin were staring at me and shouting things at me in a language I just simply couldn't understand. It was the furthest I'd ever felt from home. I chose to just prop my bag behind my head and attempt to sleep, but a few minutes later was tapped on the leg by a man in his early twenties and gestured to leave as I was in his place. A lady, maybe a relation of his said something to him and motioned that I be allow to stay where I was as there was enough room for us all to sleep in this area. He didn't look convinced and another Indonesian then jumped up and shouted 'Hey Mister, you and him' and then began hugging himself, insinuating that we could snuggle up together for the night. I was not impressed and nor was the guy whose bed it seemed I was in. This man disappeared again soon enough though and there did seem to be quite a lot of room where I was so I lay back down determined to remain put for the night. For the next hour I was visited by what seemed like the entire teenage population of the ship, who gathered around me snapping pictures of me with their mobile phones as if I was some sort of celebrity. Normally I wouldn't have minded, but here for the first time it really did feel intrusive. The groups would play loud Indonesian music on their phones around me, giggle while staring at me and repeatedly return with more friends to ogle at me as if I was some sort of exhibit in a zoo cage. It wasn't fun being a giant panda. To make matters worse, my roomie returned and decided he didn't really like the identical vacant position next to me but instead preferred to squeeze me right up to the side of the raised platform and then drape his leg and later, his arm over me while he slept, cuddling up closer and closer to me and drooling down his chin. There was no way I was going to get a minute of sleep like this and I grabbed his legs and arms and pushed him away from me, all the time getting angrier and angrier. I really did contemplate finishing my trip at this point and taking the first available flight home. He got the point eventually and I did manage to get a little bit of sleep, but regularly woke up to find a new group of kids crouching in front of me aiming a mobile phone at my face.Arriving at just after 6 in the morning I made my way off the boat in to another massive crowd of people waiting I assumed to board the boat, which I once again had to jostle my way through to escape. Once past the worst of it I then had to combat all the ojek drivers who crowded around me to fight for my business. I chose one of them and asked him to take me to a guest house I'd picked out of my guide, anxious just to lie down in a bed with a mattress for a few hours. Things got worse though. Once again I'd managed to select the craziest ojek driver in the country who shouted at the top of his voice at everyone around him and constantly had his thumb on the horn despite there being nowhere for the jam ahead of him to go because of the melee of people around. Then when we arrived at my guesthouse of choice the guesthouse didn't even exist anymore. My ojek driver had vanished and so I had to walk for a while to find another, visit three more hotels that were all full before arriving at Kaliuda Guesthouse who wanted to charge me 100,000 rupiah (roughly 6) for a room that didn't even have a bathroom, a small fortune in Indonesian. I had no choice. I threw my bags down dejected and resenting my decision to come to Sumba in the first place, especially as I only planned to be here for two days before the ferry once again departed to take me to West Timor. I collapsed on to the bed, intent at the time on not leaving the room again until my ferry was ready to leave for Timor.I am a cranky bugger when I'm tired. I'm not the most talkative person in the mornings and if I haven't had a lot of sleep over a few days I'm liable to lose my temper more easily and snap at people, and so it seemed the sleep was what I needed. On reaching the Kaliuda hotel I'd been quite rude to the two young men who I'd met and had shown me to the room, unwilling to barter on the price, neither of whom spoke any English. I'd shown my disgust at their not budging on the price, slammed the door after them as they left and had thought about leaving the hotel after I had regained my energy after my sleep. But the sleep served not only to top up my energy but also to reignite my morale. I left the room a different person, greeted the two young men, and questioned them on what there was to do in the area and where the ferry ticket office was so that I might buy my return ticket. They seemed quite confused at my sudden change in demeanour.I strolled around Waingapu, the capital of Sumba and the city I was in, skirting around the many pigs and goats that roam the streets. Being a predominantly Catholic island and it being a Sunday there weren't many people out and about and the Pelni office was shut when I arrived there. I wasn't too bothered though, the walk had done me the world of good. I began to wonder about who owned all these wild animals that roamed the streets, how they knew they were theirs and did the animals know where their home was and return there at the end of the day much like a domesticated dog or cat would back in England. I couldn't imagine having a goat coming through a cat flap back in London.I'd come to Sumba as it's very famous for its Pasola festival that takes place in the first three months of every year where villages come together to compete in a bloody ritual against one another on horseback, wielding spears at one another. Although the government has insisted on the festival being toned down in recent years it is still said to be a fantastic sight. Being the wrong time of the year I wasn't going to get to witness this but Sumba is also famous for its lavish and extravagant funeral ceremonies that last for several days, where animals are sacrificed to appease their dead ancestors as part of the animist rituals the local people believe in. This is also the island where headhunters used to roam, looking for a nice new, attractive head to stick on a spike that would hold them in high esteem with their fellow villagers and ancestors. Although the government commanded that all heads be removed from the spikes in the sixties, some locals I spoke to while I was here told me that in remote villages in the centre of the island these headhunters still continue to practice these blood-thirsty rituals. I didn't fancy losing my head, but I figured somebody must have died recently and maybe if I found one of these villages I'd get invited to attend the funeral. I had nothing better to do. I hired a motorbike and set off north-west, out of the city following the coastline along, passing through isolated villagers where people gazed at me not believing what they were seeing as I drove through waving. After an hour and a half driving the villages were becoming less and less developed with only a few crudely constructed buildings, no electricity and no running water. The road had ceased to be a road anymore and was now just a dusty strip of land with giant holes dotted in and around it. It was here that I noticed that my front wheel began twisting out underneath me, trying to wrench the bike from one side to the other. I stopped to inspect the tyre and found the air was rapidly escaping and the tyre punctured. I was at least two hours away from Waingapu, and a good hours drive away from anywhere capable of fixing the wheel. I didn't know how much further I would have to drive to get to a village that would be able to help me and so now convinced that my whole trip here to Sumba was now cursed I decided I would have to ride back in the direction I had come from and hope the rim of the bike would suffice in getting me there. If I went much over 40kph the front wheel would start to shake uncontrollably as if trying to throw me off the road so it was slow-going, but I eventually made it back to a village where there was a bike repair man waiting at the side of the road, almost expecting my arrival. It turned out the tyre was punctured in two separate places, but the rim was still OK and he was able to fix it for me. Repaired, I decided it wise to not wander too far from Waingapu that afternoon and instead ride out east where the roads were slightly better and visit some of the villages there. The ride was relaxing, but unfortunately for me nobody in any of the villages I passed through had appeared to have died recently so alas no funerals.I didn't meet many other travellers during my time in Sumba, but being off the normal tourist trail those that I did meet were extremely interesting people. I met a French man who was in Sumba to surf on some of the island's famous surf spots. He spoke excellent Indonesian amongst many other languages and although not particularly adept at listening to anything I had to say had some good stories of his own. I met a Czech lady in her seventies who had lived in Indonesia during the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. She told me of her family's attempt to escape from Sumatra to Java where eventually they were captured and separated, her mother and her sisters all being taken to West Java and her father being taken to Surabaya in West Java where he had to look after over a hundred young boys in a concentration camp. Her mother and father were missionaries when they brought their children here in the 1930s and she and her husband had now returned, also as missonaries to Indonesia to help set up a series of wells to provide the local people with fresh water in the extremely dry region of East Sumba. Another interesting character I met was Nat, a Hawaiian man who had been living in the south of Sumba for the past two years after marrying a Sumbanese woman. He doesn't get the chance to meet or talk to other Westerners and so was over the moon at having mine and Guido's company (the French guy). Nat didn't stop talking in his zealousness, imparting story after story upon us and telling me when I questioned him about attending the local funerals that if he would rather smash himself in the nuts than attend another one. He was one of the people who also told me about the headhunters still active on the island. Later that night he took Guido and I down to the old harbour and to a makeshift restaurant that was really just a big marquee, that had a cooler-box full of freshly caught fish where we just picked which fish we wanted and it was cooked for us. I ate fish every day I was in Sumba and it was the best seafood I'd ever had, and here was the pick of the lot. The fish were huge and full of taste. The three of us laid in to two gigantic ones, leaving nothing but the bones, even slurping away on the fish's eyes to savour all of its many tastes.Once again a place that I'd begun to regret visiting turned out to be an incredible experience, where upon I met some fantastic people. I even befriended the local Pelni office boss whom I had a fish lunch with one afternoon. Our friendship served me well as when I visited the office to buy my ticket to Kupang, instead of waiting in the huge line that had formed to obtain tickets, I was directed around the back to the inside of the office itself where I was given a comfy chair and my ticket quickly taken care of. Needless to say I was not going back economy class!