Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Have The Portuguese Ever Done For Us?

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit and set up shop in the Indonesian archipelago. They were also the last to leave when they were finally kicked out of East Timor in 1975. Nevertheless their influence has been relatively minor. The Indonesian language has only about fifty loanwords from Portuguese, such as gereja (church, from igreja), keju (cheese, from queijo), sepatu (shoe, from sapato), which pretty much sums up early European preoccupations: convert the primitive heathens, make them civilised by dressing like us, and finding a way to make them prepare decent food and not this rice rubbish (talk to almost any European who has spent a longer time in (south)east Asia and they will usually say that the one thing they are missing from home is cheese. The only lasting remnants left by the Portuguese are the name of the island of Flores (meaning "flowers") and Catholicism, the prevalent religion therein.

Traditional Flores ikat weaving. Simple designs and bold colours.

Flores is a long, thin sausage of an island, barely 75km across at its widest point, but with a topography worthy of an island five times its size: volcanoes popping up around every corner, ups, downs, twists, turns and barely a straight line in sight. The Trans-Flores highway is a joke, but there are signs of Indonesia's increasing wealth (driven largely by a boom in natural resource exports) as the potholed, one-and-a-half lane artery gets a makeover and might soon, perhaps, be able to accommodate a lane of cars in each direction. I've also noticed, the further east I have travelled, a gradual change in the appearance of local people: from Medan in the west, where there is an almost equal mixture of Indian, Austronesian and Chinese, to East Nusa Tenggara where the skin tones are darker*, the foreign influences far smaller, and people look almost Polynesian. Like any island in East Nusa Tenggara worth its salt Flores also has a rich tribal culture similar to that of neighbouring Sumba, Sulawesi and Timor. During pre-colonial times the coast was ruled by the seafaring, Muslim Buginese from Sulawesi who captured slaves from the local tribal populations, who moved to the mountainous interior for safety. So naturally, like in many other places, it is in the hills that tribal mores have been preserved the best: the Manggerai village of Waerebo in the west and the land of the Ngada in the centre, clustered around the main town of Bajawa. I didn't have time to visit the former but did spend a couple of days around the latter.

A Bajawa man with distinctly Polynesian features and darker skin than people from western Indonesia.

Bajawa is a pleasant hill town with a refreshingly cool (for Indonesia at least) in the shadow of Mount Inerie, a perfectly conical volcano. Its population friendly and welcoming, their Catholic inheritance most evident in their names, where archaic European monikers are favoured: I met a Eustacius, Taddeus, Erasmus and Cornelius all on the same day. Ngada villages are draped on the mountain's lower slopes all the way down to the coast. The rich, volcanic soil makes the area especially fertile. The higher reaches are home to coffee plantations, and as you descend these are replaced by cocoa, cashews, rice terraces and groves of bamboo. Traditional villages follow the standard layout: two parallel rows of houses with ancestral graves in the middle. The Ngada's own unique twist comes in their nghadhu and bhaga, the former a parasol-like thatched structure, representing the masculine, and the latter a miniature thatched house representing the feminine. Each clan within the village has a pair and they play an important role in animist rituals.

A panorama view of a Ngada village, perfectly showing the parallel disposition of the houses around the central plaza (in the foreground the group of stones are old ancestral graves).

Further east, just past the port of Ende, is Flores's second tourist attraction, Mount Kelimutu. Or to be more precise, its lakes. Like all Flores's mountains worth mentioning, Kelimutu's a volcano. Its acned self popped on at least three separate occasions. One can tell because on each occasion it decided to use a different exit, leaving three craters next to each other. The particular attraction of Kelimutu is that each one is home to a vividly-coloured lake, though each of a different hue. One blue, one red and another black (although to be honest, the red one was blue when I was there, although I did see a photograph that did back up the name). Pretty enough.

View of two of Kelimutu's lakes, in the foreground is Red Lake (yes, I know it's blue) and in the back is Blue Lake.

*Buying soap and other cosmetics products in Indonesia is difficult. Not because they don't have any, far from it, but almost every single product contains some sort of whitening agent. Here (and in many parts of Asia, from India through to Japan) the whiter you are the more beautiful you are. Everybody wants to be as white as virgin snow. Whether this prejudice was there before Europeans arrived or whether it's a by-product of colonialism I'm not sure, although my personal opinion is to lean towards the former (being darker was often a trait of the lower classes, who had to work outside in the fields in the sun, whereas the aristocracy remained indoors and was therefore paler). For white people this can be an advantage as there is a societal admiration for those with fairer skin (and noses that are less flat), although for some the attention may be overwhelming. And even within Indonesian society there is a hierarchy of worth predicated on skin colour (Papuans and those from East Nusa Tenggara are at the bottom whilst the Javanese and Sumatrans are at the top). Conversely there is negative racism towards black people of African ancestry, an unfortunate, and all too common, trait amongst people from developing countries; the idea of solidarity thanks to a shared colonial history not making any headway.

1 comment:

Bruno Marques (portuguese) said...

As far as history tells us: East Timor was made independent in 1975 by decree(not by bloodshed), and was under decolonization since 1974 following the Carnations Revolution on the 25th April. Invaded by Indonesia in 1975, East Timor regained its autonomy in 1999(after years of authentic civil war and genocides). Not to go further in those details - to which the author of the article above may indulge himself in a history book, if interested in providing accurate information to his audience - I should add that the independent territory of East Timor is a member of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries since Portuguese was adopted as official in detriment to Indonesian - maybe that questions your conception of the statue...?

Won't comment over the title. Maybe you should try to get more informed.
by the way, like Asian countries, rice is a main grain on the Portuguese diet.