Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oecussi: Life In The Parking Lot

From Kupang there are daily buses that connect directly to Dili, East Timor's capital. That, however, would be far too simple, and for those who know me well, know that I never do things the easy way if it can be done in a far more complicated fashion. Instead I set my sights on the small East Timorese exclave of Oecussi sandwiched into a small slice of the north coast of the island by West Timor (although theoretically it isn't even a real exclave as it has access to the sea). I've always been fascinated by regions that are separated from the main body of their country. How did they arise? are they viable? what are the connections like with the rest of the country? Do the people identify with the rest of the country or want to be apart?

A traditional house from the western half of the island (including Oecussi). Note the very low door.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

End Of Indo

From Flores I caught the weekly ferry to Kupang in West Timor. I was unable to explore Flores all the way to its eastern tip as I would have liked because I had only one week left on my Indonesian visa and still needed to procure my East Timorese visa. Extending my visa was no longer an option for the frustratingly banal reason that I had no free space large enough in my passport to accommodate another extension stamp. I am, however, blessed with dual citizenship and so am able to carry on for the time being now that I've had my British passport shipped out to me. The West Timor immigration department has a wonderful website where you can apply for your visa online by filling out a form and e-mailing it to the address provided. The process has a single, but fatal, flaw. It doesn't work. I sent off my completed form four weeks ago and, despite several efforts to make contact, including a heart-rending sob story, could just have well have sent it into a black hole for all the feedback I got. So instead I had to resort to Plan B and turn up in person.

International man of mystery: which passport shall I use today?

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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Here Be Dragons

My jaunt to Sumba completed I returned to Sape to join the well-trodden path to Labuanbajo. The town constitutes Indonesia's eastern outpost of mass tourism, as people from around the world flock to visit the islands of nearby Komodo national park, home to the eponymous dragons, the largest extant species of lizard in the world and dive in the renowned reefs in the surrounding national marine park. Being the wannabe naturalist that I am I couldn't not go, so I signed up and joined the queue.

A Komodo dragon in full swing, long, forked tongue out tasting the air.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

An Island, Not A Dance

The islands of Nusa Tenggara stretch out due east from Java like beads on a string: Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Alor. The names exotic and evocative. My progress through to the tip of Sumbawa was relatively quick and, for the first time in quite a while, I was no longer the only white person in the bus. All were heading from Bali, via the Gilis (a cluster of islands off Lombok that have become a party favourite), to the port of Labuanbajo on the tip of Flores, from where there are many tours to the islands of Komodo national park. The trans-Sumbawa buses connect to daily ferries linking Sape to 'Bajo. But to the south, lies an island that many people bypass. Sumba's attractions are not as obvious as those of Java, Bali or Sulawesi. For Indonesians Sumba is best known for its horses. Not because they are particularly special, but because Sumba, with its drier climate and semi-savannah landscape, is the only place in the archipelago that is suited to them. For us foreigners who have seen horses before and think they are rather humdrum. Instead, thanks to being a generally poor island with few useful resources, the Sumbanese were pretty much left to their own devices throughout the colonial period, an attitude that didn't really change much with Indonesia's independence 65 years ago, so tribal traditions are stronger here than almost anywhere else in the archipelago.

The spectacular rumah adat of Ratenggaro village in west Sumba. In this part of the island the houses are larger (housing up to four families) and the roofs taller. Houses in Sumba all share a similar layout: ground floor for animals, first floor for people, second floor for eating communal meals and for the ancestral spirits, or marapu.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Which Bali Do You Want?

"Have you been to Bali yet?" is the question that I've been asked by almost every single Indonesian I've met in the 3 months I've been here. Although Indonesia is a vast country comprising over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups and 742 different languages, I am white and ergo I must be going to Bali. If any foreigner has heard about Indonesia it is invariably about Bali. For many Australians it is their equivalent to the Spanish Costas for sun-starved northern Europeans, and their way of holidaying there is not at all dissimilar. Yes, I was planning to go to Bali I would reply, but also Sulawesi, Ambon, Flores, Sumatra and Java. There is more to Indonesia than just one island. Bali's overwhelming presence on the tourist trail through Indonesia made me resent it even before I had set foot on it. I was sure I wouldn't like it and wasn't planning on staying long.

My nightmare image of Bali.