Our Family Travel blogger returns to an Indonesian village with her her son, two years after her first visit.
In New Zealand, it’s not usual to attend a funeral of someone you don’t know and in some cases, it’d be wholly inappropriate. My guide and translator, Iwan, assured me that in Sumba, Indonesia, all are welcome to farewell the dead; a process taking several days. I hoped he was right. I love to explore new cultures, but I don’t want to invade people’s personal space while doing so.
The funeral was at a traditional village, where the animist religion of “Marapu’ is practiced. Death is a transition where the spirit joins the Marapu or ancestral spirits. These deceased ancestors guide, reward and punish the living. At funerals, sacrificing buffalo, horses and pigs to the Marapu accelerate the transit time to the afterlife and are an indicator of wealth.
We drove up hills surrounded by lush tropical jungle. That is, before we abandoned the car as the monsoon rains had made the dirt and stone road too slippery. We walked twenty minutes before bamboo and grass houses came into sight. Their tall roofs are made to reach the heavens. Megalith tombs and the holy house, which can only touched by the sharman or Rato, stood in the village centre between the houses. Three freshly dismembered buffalo lay nearby.
Unexpectedly the village men dressed in multicoloured traditional Ikat cloth flooded towards me. They wore the machetes used for village tasks, strapped around their waists. Villagers are curious when a foreigner visits, but I’d never been surrounded by serious, if not angry-looking men before. I felt intimidated. But didn’t show it. The crowd parted for a tall man. Iwan whispered it was the chief’s son. He stared me in the eye and demanded, “What are you doing here.” My stomach dropped. The man bent his fingers to his palm for me to follow him, which I did. I had no idea what was about to happen. Iwan walked alongside, separated by the sixty people accompanying me.
We stopped in front of a house, and the chief’s son nodded for me to enter. I stepped up onto the bamboo balcony, lowered my head and stepped through the front opening. It was dark inside except for the flickering candles in front of four expressionless women, sitting cross-legged to my right. The chief’s son flicked his hand towards the back of the house. I walked further.
When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the body of the chief before me sealed in a plastic bag and seated upright with his legs close to his body in a foetal position. He seemed small because of the Sumbanese tradition of breaking the deceased limbs before burial.
People outside the house craned their necks to watch. Every gaze fixed on me. I glanced at Iwan for guidance, but he hadn’t been allowed inside. I was on my own. In front of me was the body of this man’s father, revered by all in the village. I could accidentally offend. The silence was penetrating and the atmosphere tense. I walked up close to the chief’s body and stood in silence for some time and considered the value of this man to his village. Then I bowed my head and put my palms together at the front of my chest, the universal sign of respect.
Suddenly, the tense atmosphere evaporated. Huge smiles appeared; people started talking. Villagers nodded and touched me as I walked out of the house. I glanced at Iwan with relief. We were both ushered to sit down. Boiled rice, meat and sugary tea were brought to us by shyly smiling girls.
After eating, I walked around the village to take photos. A woman with a sense of humour that gushed through her smile called out. We laughed so much as she helped me with my meagre Indonesian and I showed her photos of my son, Lucas, who I was missing. The intimidating man from earlier joined us. He was so warm, friendly and hilarious that I wondered if he'd been playing a joke on me when I arrived!
There was a commotion and I turned to see what was happening. The body of the chief was lifted onto a bamboo frame to be taken to his burial place. We followed the entire village through the jungle to the eldest son’s home. A blessing ceremony was performed by the Rato, who tossed holy water over the tomb after the chief was placed inside. The group burst out laughing when I was accidentally wet. Apparently it’s a good omen.
Visiting the village was a wonderful experience, I didn’t want the day to end. I said that I’d return one day with Lucas.
Two years later, Lucas and I sat with Iwan in the house where the previous chief's tomb was, willing the monsoon rains to stop. Unless they did, the access road to the village would be impassable. Children peeked around the door giggling, until their mother shoo'd them away. Iwan asked the new chief about his brother and the woman I'd spent so much time with on my first visit. I was disappointed to hear that they were working in the rice fields. The rain eased and our host stood up. Iwan said, “We go now."
Reminiscent of the first time, the road was slippery so we walked. Our greeting was entirely different however; it was smiles from the outset. We sat on woven mats and accepted the offer of betal nut, or Sirih-Pinang. I discretely warned Lucas, as it’s bitter, astringent and produces copious amounts of blood-coloured saliva. We dipped the betal nut in powdered lime and chewed. Lucas and I copied the others and spat onto the ground.
The chief was keen to dress Lucas in traditional costume. As the villagers looked on laughing and I took photos, Lucas glared at me with a “I can’t believe I have to endure this,” look. Before long, his teenage resistance dissolved and he had fun doing warrier poses for his crowd.
It was time to leave. The chief told me via Iwan that because I had come to his father's funeral and brought my son back to visit as I had promised, we were now family. He was Lucas’s grandfather. If there was anything we needed, the village would support us.
This is why we travel. It is amazing to learn about different cultures and ways of life, but the most beautiful thing is creating bonds with people. Even if you don’t share a language. Lucas said it had been the most special part the trip so far.
By Family Travel blogger, Trish Johansen. www.intrepidparents.com