A look at the Manggarai culture of Wae Rebo village, deep in the rainforest of Flores, Indonesia.
The village of Wae Rebo is located deep inside the jungles of the Manggarai regency in Flores, Indonesia. At Ruteng, the nearest big town, we had gained respect instantly whenever we mentioned our intent to visit Wae Rebo. For the Mangarrai people, visiting Wae Rebo was a form of pilgrimage. We drove on motorbikes along a scenic road for six hours to reach Denge. From there, we trekked uphill through the jungle for four hours to reach a place called ‘mobile point’, named so because that was the last place where one could get a phone signal. Wae Rebo was right in front of us.
Wae Rebo comprises of seven conical houses neatly placed in a circle in a small lawn. The village was crafted out at the top end of a giant landscape that began with jagged peaks at one end that gently rolled over its green carpet to the sea at the other end. Our necks turned a full half circle to view this entirety. Candyfloss clouds floated slowly over this lost world. Even after a tiring climb, the view placed a spring in our feet and we hopped and ran towards the village.
As soon as the villagers saw us, they sat on an elevated circular platform, the village altar, at the centre of the village. Once we joined them, a chicken was sacrificed and its entrails studied to foretell our future. The forecast was all good. We were soon led to the main house, Rumah Gendang, where the village elders sat in a line along the diameter of the circular floor. We sat along its edges facing them. Again a chicken was sacrificed and its entrails studied. The Kepala Kampung (village head) started addressing us in Manggarai. A young man called Yos sat next to us and translated his words to Bahasa Indonesia, “I wish you well and also wish good future for the people in Wae Rebo, Ruteng and Singapore.” Then we all shook hands to formally greet each other.
After the ritual greeting, Yos showed us around the village, “The Manggarai people believe that the circle is a symbol of unity. That’s why the village is arranged in a circle, the floors of our houses are circular, and so is our village altar called kompang.” We strolled along leisurely. Everyone we came across gave us big smiles.
As it began getting darker, the temperature began to fall considerably. Wae Rebo was eleven hundred metres above sea level. The children of the village huddled together, crouching and pulling over their t-shirts to cover their arms and legs. They looked like small potato sacks but once I went near them they took out their arms from inside their t-shirts to feel my beard and laugh hysterically.
We asked Yos about life in Wae Rebo. “We grow coffee in these hills”, he said, “We carry down the coffee to the markets and on our way up, we bring back rice, soap and other supplies from the market. We follow a simple rule; twenty five kilos when going down, fifteen kilos when going up.” Another young man, Matien, joined us, “We don’t have any school or hospital here. When someone is sick, we have to carry her on our back to the nearest town. The children who go to school stay in a different village during weekdays. They come back only on weekends.”
We asked them about their houses, “All the materials for the house are from the surrounding jungles. Wae Rebo is the only remaining example of authentic Manggarai houses,” said Yos with a hint of pride, “All other villages in the region have become modern or half-imitations of traditional houses. There is a meaning behind each element. For example, all houses must face the kompang. Our ancestors who found this village wanted only seven houses. That’s why any new house is built separately from this compound.”
We entered the house meant for guests. The weak fluorescent lamp could barely light the room. “We don’t have electricity yet, so we bought our generator which we run for three hours every night,” said Yos. The roof of the house was about ten metres high. A wide bamboo with holes cut in it acted as a dubious ladder. The Kepala Kampung joined us. He was wearing a hoodie which had Princeton University written on it. He spoke in Mangarrai which Yos translated, “The roof is made of a kind of dry grass called alang-alang. It can catch fire easily. One charity from Jakarta helped us reconstruct some of the burnt houses.”
They showed us their guest book. Till that date, there had been three hundred and fifty foreign tourists to Wae Rebo and over two hundred and fifty local tourists. The last person had visited about a month ago. We began chatting idly. Yos had left Wae Rebo earlier to work in a plantation in Malaysia but had come back. We asked Yos how he had met his wife. “Ten years back, when I had come here from Malaysia on a vacation, I went for a wedding at a nearby village, down below. There I saw her for the first time. That night, we went Disco, Disco. We met a few times after that. Sometimes we met in the jungle; sometimes, by the sea. Everyone got to know soon and one day the girl’s parents invited me to their home to discuss.” I considered his wife to be very fortunate to have a man willing to climb up and down a wet hill for four hours each way just to meet her.
We made a foray to the kitchen which was a separate small room at the back of the main house. About ten women were busy with the cooking. They were in their best of moods, laughing vigorously as they turned us into guinea pigs for domestic training. One of them said, “The Manggarai people are very happy to meet foreigners but we can only speak Manggarai.” With smiles, we left the kitchen, promising to come back and cook the rest of the chicken.
After an hour’s waiting, the younger girls from the group in the kitchen entered the main room one by one and began placing the dishes on the floor. There was thin soup of chicken, a vegetable dish, fried dried fish, fried yam flakes, white rice and a plate of finely chopped green chilli soaked in vinegar. The people of Wae Rebo express their hospitality by bringing the food closer and closer to you. So every few minutes, Yos would get up and bring one of the dishes closer to us. After some time, his next such move would have placed the dishes on our laps and so I placed them further back for Yos to begin his game all over again. After several days of Masakan Padang hangover in Ruteng, we devoured this home-cooked food like hungry wolves.
At nine, the generator was turned off and it was time to sleep. We and the men arranged ourselves in a semi-circle along one edge of the room, all our feet pointing to the centre. The women arranged themselves similarly opposite us. Heavy blankets made of thin bamboo skins protected us from the chill.
The cocks woke us up as soon as the sun rose. The village got to work early every day. The men left for the coffee plantations while the women began spreading the coffee beans for drying. After breakfast, it was our time to leave this isolated wonderland. As we left, we saw the mist forming a soft envelope around the houses of Wae Rebo, slowly rising, kissing the roofing before evaporating into the skies from the tip of the symbolic spears on top of each.
This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Journeys With the Caterpillar, a humble and humorous attempt to capture the dramatic simplicity of Nusa Tenggara Timur(NTT) in Indonesia, covering the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba. You can buy the complete book here on Amazon for $2.99.
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