Like endangered species, magical encounters with pure and unadulterated Indonesian traditional culture have become increasingly rare events in the 21st century. While predictions for long-term survival are dark, miraculous surprises can come when least expected.
Arriving under the cover of dusk, the reality of an uneasy new national border set up between Indonesian Timor and Timor Leste came at dawn when the harbour master sent a stern warning to move our ship 200 metres west as we were anchored in “foreign” waters.
My apprehensions of a sad tour of Belu, the heartlands of the Tetum people, one of the most incredible traditional cultures were only increased by the cold reception of the local Indonesian authorities who viewed our papers with suspicion apparently unsure how to react to the first luxury tour boat to land tourists in Atapupu, a dreary port surrounded by high fences and barbed wire remnants of a troubled parting of ways.
As we headed out into the hills above Atambua, a traditional village and seat of the local government, proud hills, thatched roofs and colourful costumes stunned me. Encouraged, I began to entertain the thought that the strict ban on outsiders had unintentionally created a time warp of sorts that had preserved the culture.
My hopes only grew as we wound up to a rocky peak to the walled village of Tuaninu. Stopping before a stone gate, we were greeted by a delegation of proud elders wrapped in ikat cloths and wearing ancient swords with handles in the shape of parrots. Tattooed, brown and wrinkled they exposed betel stained teeth as they chanted the ancient greeting before allowing entry.
Suddenly without warning two rows of about 30 girls between 8 and 14 let out a war cry as they beat their hourglass shaped tifa drums furiously and marched towards us. Their young age and enthusiasm combined with powerful rhythms were as overwhelming as their colourful costumes which included headdresses drenched with silver coins dating back as far as the 17th century.
For the next three hours we were delighted by further dances mirroring the ancient and complex history of the people of Belu who straddle both sides of a to them invisible border. Direct descendents of the ancient Austronesians, centuries of contact with the outside world that coveted their sandalwood and ‘yellow gold’ would result in many influences and the influx of silver dollars. In spite of this they would maintain their core beliefs in the ancestors who are still believed to visit the sacred house within the village during ceremonies. After sharing their world the elder ladies, many with tattooed hands gave us the traditional ‘kiss’ by rubbing their noses against ours. Tears were shed as we headed back to the coast.
Famed for their textiles and fine carvings the continuing survival of the Belu ways is still unsure as the region rapidly develops and the old ways evaporate. A good example occurred on Sermata in 2009, an extremely isolated island in Southeast Maluku. Two years before our passengers made photos of the locals. Unexpectedly and despite the fact there was no cell phone coverage on the island, the foreigners were besieged by locals eager to make photos of the visitors on their mobile phones. We cannot prevent the inevitable, but so too preserving memory and instilling local people with pride in the traditional culture can forestall the descent of all third world people into an empty generic species dressed in soiled, tattered shorts and tee shirts. Material advancement is of great importance but without culture, art and identity, it leaves only a well-fed shell of human existence. More is needed to nourish the human soul as well as body.