Timor is an island located towards the Eastern side of the Indonesian archipelago, a whopping 2660 kilometres from Jakarta. The island is well known mostly because its Eastern half is the independent country of East Timor. Curiously, the word Timor itself actually means "East" in Malay. The roots of the island's division lie in European colonialism: Timor was divided between the Dutch and the Portuguese in the nineteenth century. While the Western side became part of Indonesia in 1949, along with the surrounding islands, the East remained a Portuguese colony until 1975, after which it declared independence and was promptly invaded by Suharto's Indonesian regime, fearful of the rule of the left-wing Freitlin party. Many East Timorese never accepted Indonesian rule, and the territory regained its independence in 1999 after the fall of Suharto, but only at the cost of massacres and bloodshed.
West Timor is the half of the island that belongs to Indonesia. It is home to about 1.8 million people (the whole island has 3.2 million). It is part of the wider province of East Nusa Tenggara, which includes 500 islands scattered through the ocean, north of Australia and West of Papua. The province has the lowest per capita income in Indonesia, with much of the population still living off the land. West Timor is no exception, with 30% of its people living below the poverty line. Outside of the main city, Kupang, society is still rural and ancient ways of life are changing only slowly. There are various ethnic groups, but the largest one is the Atoni people, also known as the Dawan.
My journey started in Kupang, the only real city in West Timor. I flew from Bali to Kupang on a small propeller plane. On the first leg of the flight I appeared to be the only foreigner. Most of the other passengers had the typical features of the peoples of Indonesia's eastern islands, with much darker complexions than the Javanese. Many of them would have easily passed for East Africans anywhere else in the world. Our plane stopped over in the small town of Maumere, on the island of Flores. As we were about to take off again, I was surprised to suddenly hear what sounded like Italian spoken a few seats behind me. At first I thought it might be a local Austronesian language which happened to sound remarkably like Italian, but after hearing a few more phrases I concluded that it really was Italian. I turned round, craning my neck, and managed to catch a glimpse of a girl who was obviously an Italian backpacker. She was chatting in Italian with a nun, who looked Indonesian.
After arriving at the tiny airport in Kupang, I got out of the plane and walked the 20 meters to the terminal building where the luggage was. While we waited for our luggage I got chatting with the Italian girl. She turned out to be a professional tour guide who lives in London, and was backpacking across South-East Asia for a few months. She had already travelled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and most of the islands of Nusa Tenggara. The nun she was chatting to was a local who she had met on the plane, who spoke good Italian thanks to the years she had spent studying in the seat of Roman Catholicism.
Unsurprisingly, the Italian girl (named Anna) turned out to have booked the same guesthouse I had, the Lavalon, which appears to be the main gathering point for the foreign backpackers and adventurers who wash up on these shores. The guesthouse had sent a driver to come and pick us up, so I hopped in with Anna and we shared the cost of the ride.
The guesthouse turned out to be underwhelming. Lonely Planet describes it as the "best value in town, with clean rooms and Western-style bathrooms. Excellent meals and cold beer are served in the open air common area, which has fine views". There was indeed a common area with nice views of the ocean, but the accommodation turned out to consist of two single rooms and a dorm with bunk beds, all of which were dingy, dark and uninviting, and not even terribly cheap compared to what was on offer. The showers did not have hot water. Anna and I were the only people staying at the guesthouse, and also quite possibly the only foreign tourists in West Timor while we were there.
An even bigger disappointment was the guesthouse's owner, "much-loved living Nusa Tengara Timur encyclopedia and former Indonesian film star Edwin Lerrick". The Lonely Planet website goes even further: "the irrepressible owner of Kupang's Lavalon Bar & Hostel is also a sensational guide, with deep regional knowledge and connections throughout West Timor, especially in the traditional villages". When we met him in person, there appeared to be little irrepressible or glamorous about him. He looked like an old retainer, slumped in a chair wearing shorts and a shirt open on his bare chest. He acted quite indifferent to us, just giving us our keys and a form to fill in, and asking us no questions. After a while he just disappeared. The remaining staff were quite unresponsive, and we had to ask a few times before finally being given such luxuries as pillows, blankets and towels. Oh, and there were no meals and cold beers in sight. This obviously was low season, but still...
The only person who was friendly and chatty was the man who had picked us up from the airport, who was a professional tour guide and wanted to sell us his tour of West Timor. If you want to visit the island's interior it is advisable to hire a professional guide who speaks the local languages, and so after some thought and bargaining we decided to take up his offer. Anna had actually come to Timor because her one month visa-free travel in Indonesia was almost up, and so she planned to cross over into East Timor for a visa run and then re-enter Indonesia. She still had a few days left in the country though, and she was also keen on seeing the interior of Timor, so we naturally decided to go on the tour together and split the cost.
That evening we went for a walk around Kupang's harbour. Lonely Planet describes the city as "East Nusa Tenggara's top metropolis, which buzzes to a frenetic Indonesian beat", as opposed to the rural interior. Coming from outside, it was rather hard to detect the frenetic beat. It gave the impression of a quiet provincial town, and seemed to lack much in the way of amenities. The main shopping street was busy but scruffy, and the humid heat and the lack of proper pavements made it rather uncomfortable to walk around. We attracted attention and cries of "mister", although just like elsewhere in Indonesia the people seemed friendly and polite. After failing to locate a waterfront bar that showed on Google Maps, we decided to make our way back to the hostel, and enjoy a couple of beers while looking at the ocean.
Next morning at 7 (it was supposed to be 6, but I had insisted on 7), we got up and left in our guide's car. After a five hour drive through the island's beautiful hills and forests, we reached the market town of Oinlasi. We were in luck, because the weekly market takes place every Tuesday, and this happened to be a Tuesday. The market was full of villagers from rural communities selling their produce, many of them dressed in traditional clothing and ikat cloths. Some women were also selling their handmade ikat, which is apparently some of the most beautiful in Indonesia and costs about a tenth of what it would in a boutique in Bali. A lot of the local people displayed bright red lips and teeth, due to the widespread habit of chewing betel nut. Many of them wore absurd amounts of clothing given the heat, something that you notice all over Indonesia. Me and Anna were the only obvious foreigners, and we attracted many giggles, stares and greetings. Foreigners do sometimes end up in these places, taken there by one of the handful of professional guides in West Timor, but it is certainly not an everyday occurrence.
|Lady selling garlic and chili in a market, West Timor|
|Weekly market, West Timor|
As well as villagers selling their own simple produce, there were also people selling cheap mass-produced plastic ware, of the same kind you could probably find anywhere in the country. Although I was quite unaware of this at the time, I later chanced upon this article claiming that many of those selling the mass-produced goods are actually not Timorese but Muslim Bugi people originally from Sulawesi, and that the Timorese are getting marginalised in their own markets by these industrious outsiders. I have no idea whether this is true, but it is certainly the case that most Indonesian islands do experience both religious clashes and tension between the locals and immigrants from other parts of the country. Most people in West Timor are Catholic, and Kupang has seen clashes between Muslims and Christians in the past. While short-term visitors will be unaware of such things, it is good to remember that these islands that appear so idyllic, with their lush greenery and friendly, relaxed people, do not lack such problems.
In any case, we ate lunch in a dingy local restaurant, where you had to pick the food from various trays, all of which had flies buzzing all over them. This seems to be a problem in all the cheap restaurants in Timor, and certainly all the ones we ate in. It definitely does not make the food more appetising, although the taste is not bad. After lunch we drove on to our next stop, the "kingdom" of Boti. Boti is a village near Timor's south coast, accessible only by a mountain road that often becomes completely impassable during the rainy season. This was the rainy season, but the local gods must have smiled upon our trip, since it barely rained at all during our tour, while it had rained heavily prior to our arrival in Timor. Boti is noticeable because it is ruled by a chieftain, often referred to as the "king" by outsiders, and strictly adheres to local adat (an Arabic term that has come to refer to traditional customs and rules throughout the region).
Boti has become something of an obligatory stop for the few tourists who take organized tours of West Timor, and the two or three guides who operate in the region have all developed a relationship with the king. As much as I would like to say that I was the first outsider to end up in Boti in 200 years, this obviously isn't the case, but still the village is far from becoming a tourist destination. When we arrived at the village, it seemed to be deserted. We were told that the men and also most of the women were out working in the fields, including the king himself. We were however taken to the king's house, which was just a simple concrete dwelling with a few rooms. We hung out on the verandah, and the king's young wife and small son soon joined us. We were served some tea and fried cassava, while our guide conversed with them in the local dialect, supposedly a variant of the Uab Meto language of the Dawan people, although I did detect some words of Indonesian thrown in.
We then went for a walk around the village. It was almost empty, but we did see a couple of women weaving ikat by hand the traditional way. There were some simple thatched dwellings, and some small pigs lying in an enclosure. We were shown a stone platform with a thatched roof above it to protect it from the sun, where the people apparently gather in the evenings. We were also admonished not to take photos of a specific area, just behind the king's house. The houses seemed quite simple, and the whole place lacked electricity, although there are a few battery-powered lamps in the houses. The village wasn't totally lacking in modern goods, but the lifestyle certainly appeared to be very simple and old-fashioned. Let's just say that if all contact with the modern world were cut off tomorrow, local life would probably not be too affected. The guide told us that the locals do go to the weekly markets to sell their produce, and use what money they earn to buy some outside goods they need, for instance rice, which isn't grown locally.
|Hut in Boti|
|The jungle just outside our front door, Boti|
Boti steadfastly refuses to accept any kind of government assistance, and government offers to bring in electricity or modern housing have apparently met with refusals. The few hundred villagers still follow a local animist belief-system, although they are classed as Catholics on their IDs. According to what our guide told us, in every family at least one boy is supposed to stay in the village and keep local custom. This involves not going to school, and letting their hair grow long, part of local adat. The other boys can go to school and marry out. According to another source I have read, only one in two children are sent to school, and they can only come back to the village after finishing school if they are ready to relinquish any outside influences. According to Lonely Planet, local children are allowed to attend primary school but not high school, considered to be a source of unhappiness.
Whatever the true arrangement, the Boti people clearly view modern schools with suspicion as something that will endanger their culture, and don't necessarily let their children go to one. Although denying children a modern education is morally questionable, I can see their point. Especially in a context where going to school may well mean going to a boarding school, with children from different communities, in a different language, schooling might well sound the death knell for this ancient way of life.
|Woman spinning wool, Boti|
|Woman weaving ikat, Boti|
After looking around we retired to our living quarters, in the house where guests to the village stay. We were given two small rooms with no lighting or windows that remained dark even in the middle of the day. Our beds had mosquito nets, which turned out to be very useful. Our toilet was a squat toilet in an outhouse, of the kind I am used to from my stays in Chinese villages. We both lay down to nap, and once we got up the village was still quite deserted. Even our guide had disappeared somewhere to sleep. We sat outside chatting for a while, and then went for a walk around the area. The lush green forest and the valleys that could be seen from just outside the village made for some spectacular views.
Around seven o'clock we saw men starting to come back from the fields. Soon after our guide appeared and called us to go and meet the king. With some trepidation we walked back to the king's house, and there he was sitting outside. He looked like a very simple middle aged man, wearing a traditional sarong and an old and torn t-shirt. He shook our hands and greeted us politely. He seemed humble and unassuming, as did his family. We were then shown inside his house, where there was an assortment of four or five dishes we could choose from, all very tasty. We filled our bowls and went outside to eat on the verandah. The king, his wife and his children didn't eat with us, but just sat on the other side of the verandah. Our guide told us that it is not local custom to eat with guests. I would later discover that this seems to be widespread in Indonesia.
While we ate, we asked the king's a few questions which our guide translated. I asked him whether his family had always been kings, and he said that he only knows that his father and grandfather were kings too, but beyond that he doesn't know. Local history is not written down or recorded, apparently. After chatting with the guide for a while we left the king's house, so that he and his family could finally eat themselves, and we went back to our hut. It was only 8 pm, but in a village with no electricity there is obviously little to do after dark, so we just sat outside and chatted, while looking at the Southern Hemisphere's starry sky. Anna commented that the lack of written history and of clear seasons must mean that the locals' sense of the passing of time must be rather different from ours (although there is a rainy and a dry season, they are not really as distinctive as the four seasons of temperate lands).
|A local man nears our guide's jeep just outside of Boti|
Next morning we went back to the king's house for some breakfast, bid farewell to him and his family and then left Boti. After driving a bit down the winding mountain roads, we stopped at a home by the side of the road. Our guide obviously knew the family. Just like most families in the area, they possessed both a small modern house made of concrete, and an ume bubu or traditional conical hut just behind it. We went inside the traditional hut, which although only a couple of meters high was divided into two floors. The first floor is only about a meter high, meaning that standing up is impossible, and it is where the family sleeps. The ceiling was black from smoke. The top floor is used for storing food. The hut had no windows, so it was dark inside.
|A modern house next to a traditional ume bubu dwelling belonging to the same family|
|The inside of an ume bubu|
According to the guide book, the authorities have deemed the cramped and smoky ume bubu a health hazard, and are replacing them with cold concrete boxes. The local people have in turn deemed those to be a health hazard, and still live in the old huts behind the new houses. This would explain why most families seemed to have both a modern house and a traditional one. At the same time, my guide said that the new houses are built by the families themselves when they have enough money. I don't know which version is the true one, although this family definitely seemed to still use the traditional dwelling. It certainly didn't seem like a nice place to spend your days, but in a tropical country where it never gets cold, people don't need a warm, cozy home to hide away in. All they need is a dwelling to sleep in, while waking hours are spent outdoors.
Have taking our leave we drove on to Kefamenanu. Although it is just a small town, Kefa as it's know locally is still bigger and more urbane than most other places in the region. Our guide is from there and lives there. We briefly stopped at his home and met his wife and a couple of his seven children. The simple living room had a large picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. The whole area is strongly Catholic, as was made obvious by the churches and the invocations to Jesus and Mary written in Indonesian on the side of the bemo. Although it is in West Timor, the town was a former Portuguese stronghold.
The guide took us to the local high school, where we met a few of the brightest local students who wanted to practice their English with us, including one of the guide's own daughters. They spoke pretty good English. The school was made up of classrooms facing open-air corridors. We arrived at around noon, and the whole school seemed to be having one big party, with students listening to hip hop in the corridors and playing football outside. It was explained to us that the kids had finished their final exams before the Christmas break, and were now relaxing.
A local English teacher who was a friend of our guide, and two of the guide's daughters joined our afternoon excursion. After having lunch in another local restaurant with the same old food and the same old flies buzzing around, we drove to Temkessi, another very well-preserved traditional Timorese village. We had to park the car and walk up a path for about ten minutes, until we reached an opening with a group of huts of the kind that seem to be used for social gatherings, with just a thatched roof held up by a few wooden columns, and an open space underneath. We then climbed up another little path up the rocks, until we got to an area with some wooden houses. This village also seemed quite empty, with just some local children hanging around. We were told that the adults were in the fields, once again. The guide explained that this village is where several different communities gather for their religious rituals, but most of them actually live elsewhere. Only the heads of each community and their families live there. The place did have the feel of a bit of a museum, or of somewhere that was left running more as a symbol than anything else. Still, the children hanging around obviously lived there. They certainly weren't just waiting for our arrival.
|The approach to Temkessi|
|Cactus in Temkessi|
|Local children staring at us in Temkessi|
Our guide told us not to let anything drop on the ground, and that if we did we should tell him and not pick it up ourselves. Apparently it is a bad omen, and a fine would have to be paid to the village before the object could be picked up. Exactly who would enforce this I don't know, since there only seemed to be children around, but tradition is tradition. None of us dropped anything to the best of my knowledge. Just as in the other village, there was one area that we were told we must absolutely not take photos of, as it is taboo. Overlooking the village there was a strange rock formation, which every seven years is the focus of a local religious ceremony, in which young warriors climb the rock with a goat strapped to their back, and then slaughter it.
After leaving Temkessi, we headed back to Kefamenanu. On the way back our guide noticed a funeral ceremony going on in a village, and stopped the car. He was clearly vaguely familiar with this community as well. There was a whole bunch of local people gathered under another conical hut, and a hearse lying nearby. A local 70- year old man had apparently died the night before. His body was still inside the house, waiting to be put in the hearse. The atmosphere seemed quite cheerful, with women laughing and joking. The older women were dressed in traditional clothing. We sat under the hut with everyone else, and stayed there for a while as our guide chatted with the locals. At some point a living chicken was taken, and its throat was slit right next to the hearse. This was a sacrifice made to the deceased, whose body was about to be taken out and put into the hearse. At this point we left however, before we got to see the actual deceased.
We then drove back to Kefamenanu, where we were going to spend the night. We were taken to a local hotel, where we were shown two not especially nice rooms for the price of 180.000 rupiah each. Anna was not having it, declaring that she had been travelling in Indonesia for a month, and she felt the price wasn't worth the quality. The rooms had no air conditioning, but what bothered her even more was that the window could not be completely closed, which meant that mosquitoes would inevitably come in, and there were no mosquito nets. Although we were both exhausted and looking forward to a shower, she insisted that we go and see some other hotels. The guide took us to two other hotels, both of which were even worse and a bit cheaper. One was old and dirty, and the other had no showers at all. At this point I insisted we go back to the first one, and Anna reluctantly agreed. It may be that in remote parts of Indonesia you just don't find good hotels by an outsider's standards, the same as in remote parts of China.
In any case we checked in and enjoyed the showers and wifi. That evening we were invited to have dinner at the home of the local English teacher who knew our guide. He and his wife turned up on motorbikes to pick us up and take us back to their home. Thankfully we were both given helmets. The teacher's house was simple but pleasant, and his large family were all there, including his parents and various offspring. Once again, the family did not eat with us. Me and Anna eat the food, and the family sat with us in the living room but didn't eat. The teacher's relatives asked questions that he translated. The room had a large image of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus on the wall. The family got very excited when I said that I had lived in Rome, and asked me if I had met the Pope. Timor's fervent Catholicism is something I am not especially used to encountering in Asia. Of course Islam is historically an equally foreign religion to Indonesia, although at least it isn't the religion of recent invaders as Christianity basically is. After eating we were offered some strong local liquor, of which I managed to drink a glass.
We went back to the hotel and I collapsed into bed, although mosquitoes disturbed my sleep somewhat. Next morning the guide came to pick us up, and we started driving back to Kupang. We had time for a couple more weekly markets, and to stop at None, another traditional village whose people practiced headhunting until 1945. I suppose the government of independent Indonesia must have put an end to the practice. It seems amazing now to think that such any idyllic place was engaged in headhunting so recently. Once again, needless to say, the village was almost deserted, with a few old women and children hanging around between the conical huts. We took photos of a 200 year old banyan tree, under which there is a totem pole where warriors used to meet before going off on headhunting expeditions.
|A valley in West Timor|
After a few more hours' driving, we got back to Kupang, and settled back into the Lavalon Guesthouse, whose rooms now seemed a lot nicer compared to where we had slept for the previous two nights. Although exhausted, that night we went out to a little bar near our guesthouse, and ate some rather indifferent sandwiches while a small local band played. Kupang felt a lot more like a city now that we had seen the island's interior. The next morning Anna got up at 5 to catch the bus to East Timor, and I was left on my own until the afternoon, when my plane for Jakarta was leaving. I posted a few photos of Timor on Facebook, and it was then that I made a discovery: there is an Esperanto speaker in Kupang. He was already my friend on Facebook although we had never actually spoken, and when he saw my photos he immediately wrote to me. After finding out that I only had a few hours left in Kupang, he rushed over to my guesthouse on his motorbike to meet me. I don't suppose foreign Esperanto speakers must end up in Kupang very often, if ever.
He turned out to be a young Timorese man who had learnt Esperanto from a Spanish professor while going to university in Yogjakarta. He was now back in Kupang and had opened a language school. I suggested we get some lunch, and he took me to a little restaurant on the waterfront. It was just like all restaurants in Timor seemed to be, with a few dishes in trays you could pick from, and of course flies everywhere. I ate some very nice fish's head, a local delicacy. He then drove me to the old Dutch cemetery, where the graves of various Dutch colonists who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries were preserved, as well the graves of many locals. The cemetery was overgrown, but you could walk around. We then walked along the beach nearby.
After that he drove me back to my hostel, and we bid each other farewell. I then took a cab to the airport, and boarded my plane for Jakarta. A couple of days later I would be boarding another plane back to China.