Flores is a cacophony of cultures. It is roughly divided along five ethnic groups, but in reality there are many more. Traditions and customs vary across very short distances, and often people from one village cannot clearly communicate in their local language with their neighbors 20km down the road.
The biggest tourist attractions in Bajawa are the traditional villages. The Ngada people inhabit this part of the island. They are known for their elaborate wooden houses as well as their spiritual structures dedicated to male and female ancestors. Their believes are deeply rooted in the animalistic traditions from before the Portuguese arrived, but they have adopted Christianity and have blended it into their everyday life. Names like Franciscus, Paulus, and Aleksandro adorn the Christian graves, right in front of their houses, which show off traditional drums, as well as horns and jawbones of sacrificial buffalo.
We spent a good part of the day with William our guide. He spoke very good English, knew the culture extremely well, being Ngada himself, and had a great sense of humor. If you are in town and need a good reliable guide, give him a ring 085 2390 43771, or check out his website – http://flores-stories.blogspot.com/. He took us to the villages of Luba and Bela. Nestled on the side of a volcano with a gorgeous view of the valley and the ocean, these quiet and serene villages where one of the highlights of our trip.
We arrived in Luba and were greeted by women with rose-colored lipstick, or so we thought. In fact, these women spend their time going about their day chewing betel nut, which makes their mouths and teeth glow an eerie hue of orange. The spit stains the ground in front of their houses.
The village was mostly empty as most people where out working the fields. Kids ran around with little sticks in their mouth. Weronika asks “What is this child smoking?” and our guide laughs. The sticks are really lit and the kids are puffing on one end. We did not get a clear answer.
The village is the spiritual and family center. Most of the people from the tribe do not live here as they are out and about to make a living. At least once a year, they are required by custom to make their way back to their home village for the harvest festival. The festival lasts from one to seven days, depending on the size of the village and the exact circumstances. There is a lot of dancing, traditional costumes, and obligatory pig and buffalo sacrifice.
An even more elaborate ceremony happens during a dedication of a new traditional house. The houses are large wooden structures with a thatch roof. Occasionally, they burn down or are destroyed by weather and a replacement is built. All the people from the clan to which the house belongs to chip in and send money, materials, and labor to rebuild the structure. When it is complete, the dedication ceremony is planned. The ceremony is very big. Everyone from he tribe is requested to return to the village. They bring with them rice, vegetables, pigs and buffalo. On the first day there is a lot of counting of wealth, planning for the next day, and dancing. The following morning one of the buffalo, designated as the most important one, is tied to the male umbrella-like shrine dedicated to the male ancestors. The tribe and the rest of the village gather around and the buffalo is fallen with a swift stroke of the blade. The blood must spurt and hit the shrine to appease the ancestors. The buffalo heart is then taken out and given to the tribe elder, who “reads” it in order to see what the future holds. Most of the times the fortune is good, but occasionally, negative news is heard, mostly talking about disagreements or interpersonal problems in the tribe, which are then addressed. Another buffalo is then slaughtered in a similar fashion, but tied to the tribal house for which the ceremony is being held. The heart is also read. Afterward, the rest of the animals are slaughtered and quartered. A long feast follows, cooked in the center of the village. The horns and jawbones of the buffalo are permanently displayed at the front of the house to attest to the wealth of the tribe.
We also had a chance to find out about the romantic procedures and the marriage that often follows. It all starts in a very similar way to our western world. Boy likes girl. Boy talks to girl. Boy and girl get to know each other better. Eventually, the relationship needs to become official. The boy must get a bamboo stalk filled with rice wine and bring it to the father of the girl. The men sit around, drinking, and interview the boy. Afterward, the boy brings the girl to his house, and she goes through a similar interview session with the women of the house. Now they are officially dating. If things go well, it is time for engagement. The boy’s mother must go to her closet or otherwise acquire the most beautiful sarong. This is then brought in a procession to the girl’s house. Negotiations occur. There is a lot of talk about the dowry, which the man’s family pays to the women’s, as well as the actual process of payment and planning of their life. Arguments sometimes occur, but most of the time the negotiations end and an amount is determined. Unfortunately, the amount is based on tradition and hopeful thinking. Something akin to 10 beasts (buffalo and/or horses) and some unattainable amount of money. After a tentative agreement is reached, they are now officially engaged. Some more time passes and the big day approaches. The boy duns his traditional wear, and together with his family in tow walks to the house of his bride-to-be. She is waiting inside, dressed in the sarong given to her earlier by her future mother-in-law. At the door waits an older women from the girl’s family to greet the boy and his entourage. Once he arrives, the couple stands at the door. They have previously appointed advocates from their respective families. These representatives now proceed to negotiate and announce the final details of the marriage. This involves explaining how much is actually going to be paid. The number of beast and money is of course less than was initially decided at the engagement, due to changing times, inflation, etc. Hopefully everyone understands. The rest of the village gathers around and asks pointed questions of the couple to be. Things like “do you really love each other”, “will you be good together” and so on. Eventually, formalities aside, they slaughter a pig or two and are considered man and wife. After marriage, he leaves his house and moves in with his wife and the rest of her family. Now the interesting bit. Should they have a falling our in the near future, they can separate without too much hassle. However, after some time goes by, they head into church to have a Catholic wedding. Once this is done, the marriage is sanctified and divorce is not longer possible.
In Bela, we bought bundles of vey fragrant and sweet cinnamon. William mentioned he can make a great arak drink with this cinnamon and other herbs and spices, so after the village visits, we went with him to the market to pick up the rest of the supplies. He took us to his home, where he combined all the ingredients with the potent arak and let them soak. We spent most of the afternoon and into the early evening at his house, sipping the flavored arak, talking to him and his lovely wife. We played with his youngest adorable son, Lale, and listened as his older son Franciscus skillfully strummed away on a guitar. It was a wonderfully opportunity to connect better with the local culture, learn a fair bit more about their everyday lives, and laugh at the ridiculous TV shows coming in across the airwaves from Jakarta.