Anchored off Lewoleba on the island of Lembata, Indonesia

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Wed 10 Aug 2011 11:41

Position Report – 08:22.200S   123:24.500E

Hey Mister!!  Hey, Mrs.!!!

It’s the universal greeting all across the Indonesian archipelago which includes over 17,000 islands and meanders almost 5000km across the equator from West Timor to Sumatra.  Everywhere you go, children and, often, adults as well call out “Hey Mister!!, Hey Mrs.!!!” with welcoming smiles and a burst of giggles whenever the “foreigner” attempts to respond with a bungled version of good morning – “Selamat Pagi”,  good afternoon – “Selamat Sore”, or good evening – “Selamat Malam.”


We arrived in Lembata after several days on the islands of Kupang and Alor.  It’s a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of the two previous stops as the main town here, Lewoleba, is pretty laid back and life is centered around a street market which comes alive every afternoon around 4pm with the arrival of the daily fish catch and an abundance of fruits and vegetables.

The presence of approx. 30 sailboats in the harbor and almost 70 sailors walking about town caused quite a commotion amongst the residents.  You see, Lembata normally welcomes only about 200 tourists every year and many never even make it to our base here in Lewoleba.  As we walk down the main street in town, there is almost a side-show atmosphere surrounding our presence but the locals are unfailingly polite, infinitely curious and unbelievably friendly.


Lembata is best known for its smoking volcano, Ili Api, (pictured above with the catamaran, Swanie,  in the foreground) and the whaling village of Lamalera on the south side of the island where, for centuries, the men of the village have been hunting whales with nothing more than bamboo-shafted harpoons and spears á la Moby Dick.  It’s said to be the last place on earth where humans can still hunt whales by hand and is a subsistence livelihood that conservation groups have exempted from the international ban on whaling.  On average, the men of Lamalera take between 15-25 sperm whales each season and that supposedly does not threaten sperm whale numbers which are estimated at over 1million worldwide.

While the cultural/historical significance of the whaling community intrigued us, the possibility of a long, harrowing, bloody experience for the whale was a bit too much for Margie to witness and we opted for an alternative shore excursion to the remote village of Petuntawa.

So, yesterday morning, a group of approximately 25 sailors boarded two buses (No AC and definitely no shock absorbers) for the bumpy two-hour ride to the north coast of the island.  Now, I have to say that Peter and I are not usually ones to sign up for these so-called cultural excursions to a “traditional” village.  In heavily trafficked tourist centers, these weekly, sometimes daily, “cultural extravaganzasare likely to include a group of outlandishly-costumed, overly-bored dancing automatons who perform in what is usually a “replica” of a traditional village from days gone by.

Not so, here in Petuntawa…

Our bus ride left the paved roads of Lewoleba after about 30 minutes and for the next hour and a half, we followed a pothole strewn, washed out dirt road to the little village of Petuntawa.  Here we were welcomed by a group of dancers and greeted ceremoniously by the “mayor” of the town as well as several of the “elders” from the town council.  We were offered palm wine and hand rolled cigarettes made from Lontar leaves and then escorted through the town by the dancers and their drummers. 



The streets were lined with people yelling “Hey Mister, Hey Mrs.” and throngs of children surrounded us and held our hands as we passed through the village. It was quite obvious that the sight of 25 fair-skinned foreigners was not a common occurrence in these parts.


We witnessed a “Penang Ceremony” where the family of the prospective groom marches through the streets with ivory tusks, golden jewelry, hand-woven Ikat fabric, goats, chickens, pigs, fruits and vegetables as a dowry to be presented to the bride’s family. Then we watched in awe as the older women in the village showed us how they make the beautiful hand-spun Ikat weavings.  After planting and harvesting the cotton, it is cleaned and spun with a spindle.  Then, dyes are made from bark, roots and leaves.  The cloth is woven on a loom and sections that are not to be colored are bound together with dye resistant fibre.  Each section of color represents a separate tying and dyeing process and it is incredibly complicated.  After watching this labor intensive art form, we have a whole new appreciation for handiwork of this caliber.





Following the Ikat demonstration, we moved along to another part of the village – with an entourage of children playing marching games and batting balloons with wild abandon.  At the entrance to the palm tree farm, we were again welcomed ceremoniously with more palm wine and cigarettes.  (A curious social custom that, while standard and popular in this country, is received less enthusiastically among Western visitors)  Then we watched with amazement as one of the older men in the village climbed unassisted and without any safety ropes up a 60 foot palm tree to collect the sweet nectar that would be distilled into Arak, a potent firewater brand of spirit that had a mighty “kick.”  See the homemade distillery below.


We then moved on to the beach for a terrific lunch with fresh fish, rice, vegetables and curried chicken followed by another beautiful dancing demonstration including a traditional bamboo pole dance with incredibly intricate footwork. 


After the formal presentation was over, the dancers and many of the villagers who had gathered around us seemed as if they didn’t want the party to end. They encouraged the drummers to “strike up the band” over and over again and everyone found a partner amongst the spectators and we all danced together in a circle.  It was quite amazing.  I’m not sure who got more out of this outing, the sailors or the villagers.  We were separated by a complex language barrier yet their desire to make a connection with us was so strong you could feel the good intentions and the pleasure they derived from showing us their way of life.

On the way back to the bus, two little girls held on to my hand tightly and patiently taught me how to count to ten in Bahasa Indonesian.  I reciprocated with the English translation of the numbers.  We spied two horses in a field and I said “two horses” to which they replied “dua gouda.” (sp?)  I boarded the bus and quickly grabbed my backpack which had a bunch of crayons and notebooks inside.  I opened the window where my two little friends were standing below and handed them each a crayon and a notebook.  You would have thought I gave them a million rupiah!  As the bus pulled away, they ran alongside saying “Hey Mrs!!!  Hey, Mrs!!!  Selamat jalan!  (Goodbye) and Terima Kasih!  (Thank you)

No little is me who should be thanking you!