Twenty years on: warrior-in-waiting heads Sumba village

For my 30th birthday, my mother framed school reports from the time I was 12 or 13. “Elizabeth is far too fond of the sound of her own voice” and “she sometimes sails too close to the wind for comfortable passage in the flotilla.” Are we really set in stone by the time we reach our teens?

I had cause to wonder this week, as I wandered West Sumba in search of people whose photos I had taken 20 years ago. One of my favourite pictures was of a young boy dressed up for the pasola jousting festival. He was too young to take part, but that didn’t stop him challenging the camera with a “you wait, I’ll show you” sneer.

Incurable I'll-show-you face
Pelipus Pekaba, photographed by Enny Nuraheni in 1991

Showing the pictures at a friend’s house, some one piped up: that’s Pelipus. That’s our Kepala Desa. The kepala desa, or village head, is now an elected position, arguably the one that has the most influence on people’s day to day lives in remote rural communities such as Gaura, where we were at the time. We went off to find Pelipus; he was preparing for the ceremony that marks the negotiation of a dowry. It starts with reading the entrails of a dog (provided by the bride’s side), to determine whether the partners are well-matched. The groom’s side is secretly hoping for bad omens, not necessarily because they want to see an unhappy marriage, but because a bad prognosis brings down the dowry. There’s no point holding out for too many buffalo if you’re going to have to return them when the couple divorces. Second order of business is to slaughter and roast a pig (also from the bride’s side); no serious bargaining can take place until everyone has eaten their fill. So Pelipus was busy, but not too busy to have a look at some old photos. The party oohed and aahed over pasola heros past and present. And then the village head found himself on my iPad.

He agreed to be photographed again, after he had wrapped himself into his party clothes. He told me that he had dropped out of school shortly after that first picture, and become a thief and a cattle rustler. It wasn’t until he got married and had a child that he saw the light and decided that the life of a local leader might be more palatable. (Delsi, a young Sumbanese friend who teaches high school, commented: “It’s a good strategy, to make the naughty ones head of the class. But it doesn’t always work.”)

Baby warrior turned village chief
Pelipus Pekaba, photographed by Elizabeth in 2011

That “you wait, I’ll show you” look is still there, though when I bumped back along the 15 kms of unpaved road the next day to give him the prints of the “Then and Now” photos, he was looking a little the worse for wear — the dowry negotiations had continued until dawn. He and his companions had bargained a starting offer of 15 cattle up to 40 head of buffalo and horses. It would not surprise me one bit to come back in another 20 years and find that Pelipus is head of the West Sumba government.

Peliplus in his current and former incarnations

Death to the budget! Graves in Sumba

Sumba is a graveyard of bodies and good intentions. Physically, it is littered with impressive megalithic tombs and their hideous modern counterparts. Financially, it is littered with development projects that haven’t quite developed anything.

Megalithing tomb in Anakalang, Sumba

“Megalithic” sounds ancient, and many are, but they are still being built today. The tomb in the photo above was built in the 1970s; it took several hundred people the best part of a year to drag the stones on wooden rollers from the quarry to the burial site, and months more to carve. It’s “voluntary” work, but workers need to be fed, and richly. That makes for a lot of dead buffalo. No huge surprise that many people are now using cement and tiles. Since the tile-piles have doors in them (to make it easier to shove family members in as they die) the island looks increasingly like a repository for surplus public loos, though some families are prettying them up (and covering their bets) with pictures of Jesus.

Modern Megalithics: the Jesus tomb

Not wanting to be outdone, the island’s Christians Proper (often ethnic Chinese) have got Public Works to weigh in with cement. The Christian graveyard has a lovely new fence, in a delicate shade of primrose. Its cement pillars are carefully placed so that any Indonesian child and most adults can walk comfortably between them. And it cost this district, which scores close to the bottom of the national ranking on education and health, just 314 million rupiah (a cool US$ 30,000). This certainly doesn’t compare with the cost of a traditional West Sumba tomb, but still…

Slaughtering the budget: graveyard wall in West Sumba

May everyone rest in peace.

Moncong putih: nyoblos atau main belakang?

With individuals and political parties jumping in and out of bed with one another with gay abandon, it’s quite hard for a new (re)arrival to figure out what’s going on in Indonesian politics. I am somewhat incorrectly on the record as a supporter of PDIP (a story too long to tell, but perhaps this banner, modified ahead of the last election, will give an idea…).
Coblos moncong putih

I thus have to express dismay at the apparent bullying of PDIP in its former strongholds (including Bali) by the Bigger Party. One of PDIP’s undoubted attractions has been it’s bottom-line campaign slogan “Coblos moncong putih!”. “Puncture the white snout!” — it certainly loses something in translation. But this being the logo of PDIP:
and the slogan dating from a system where voters punched a hole in the party logo of their choice, it was pretty effective.

For some reason, I thought of it this as I saw this small, unstable, “moncong putih” being shoved around by its larger, older “parent”.

Siapa mau yang moncong putih?

Spinning around Sumba

Sumba is well known for its weaving; back in the day, villagers used to wait til the pods of the kapok tree kapas bush burst open to yield their cotton, then patiently spin it in to thread with nothing but a little wooden top (a jenny? am I making that up?) gyrating on a broken plate fragment. It’s rare these days. Trying to follow all the steps involved described by Mama Lakabobo, shown here with a whole year’s production, I could understand why.

Thread and fabrik made of kapas

The older spinners’ place has been taken by little boys with warring spinning tops. The loser of the last round sets his top spinning first. His opponent’s job is to knock the first top off balance, while leaving his own spinning merrily. Witness here the Great Spinning Top Wars of Waikabubak.

Repel hazardous trespasser!

Repel Hazardous Trespassers

You can see the hazardous trespasser reflected in the glass. For what it’s worth, a more correct translation would read:

For our mutual well-being, please wear your ID card.

Perhaps they are worried about all the dodgy visitors going cap in hand to the top floor of the building, home of the Ford Foundation, which funds all sorts of hazardous enterprises, including programmes that aim to increase accountability in government.

Yoga in Bali: to laugh or to cry?

Ubud is an expatirate encampment in the hills of Bali made famous by a dashing Brazilian who rode in on a white charger and saved Elizabeth Gilbert from boring the world to death with sun salutations. And it’s here that I’m suffering an attack of incurable Yoga Rage.

In a town where it is virtually impossible to get Indonesian school books or a pair of sandals without beadwork, there are a dozen or more shops selling yoga kit. Touchy feely 100% guarantted organic cotton yoga kit. Enough to make anyone cross. Not just me, apparently:

Yoga hurts, meditation is boring

Someone had such bad Yoga Rage that they made a graffiti template. I was still chuckling when, not five minutes up the road, I encountered a Yogi prostrate with laughter, despite the fact that it looks very much as if his business is going down the drain.

Laughing Yogi goes down the drain

Waiting for SBY

The most common activity for any traveller in Indonesia is, without question, waiting around. One of the next most common activities is guessing WHY we’re waiting around. Sometimes, the ferry captain forgets the waters are tidal and a ferry will get stranded on its belly for six or eight hours. Sometimes, one has to wait until the bus driver’s mother-in-law has finished her dinner. This weekend, I spent several hours waiting for The President.

Me, I just had to wait until Bali aiport opened again after President Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono’s plane had landed. But the rest of the country seems to be waiting for him to do something, anything, even vaguely presidential. Besides handing out cabinet seats to soothe all the political parties that are getting itchy ahead of elections which aren’t even due until 2014.

Even after shuffling friends and relatives into his final cabinet, Suharto topped out at 36 cabinet level posts. The ranks have since been swelled by 18 deputy ministers, each with their offical car, squads of flunkies, time at the trough. The older denizens of Jakarta roll their eyes at the bloating in an “it was ever thus” sort of way and note that SBY is only half way to the high-water mark set by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who at one point stuffed 111 people into his cabinet.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Elizabeth Pisani Indonesian Press Card 1989

There’s only so much of one’s time one can spend thinking about other people’s sex lives. I feel as though I’ve been doing it for a very long time — there’s more than you want to know about it over at The Wisdom. Now for something completely different.

For the next year or so, I’ll be rediscovering an old passion: Indonesia. I brushed against it 30 years ago, and fell properly in love in the late 1980s, when I worked here as a correspondent for Reuters news agency.

After a couple of years the Suharto regime and I had something of a tiff (it was a bit like squabbling with the in-laws) and I left in a huff. But I was seduced back again a decade later, this time to work for the government. More adoration, more frustration, more tiffs and huffs. In 2005 I left again.

Now I’m back, older and probably no wiser. I’ve been in Jakarta and Bali for a few days, doing the things one does before setting out on an epic journey. Trying to teach myself to use a camera, for example:

Startled self-portrait: learning to use a new camera

Then deciding that even my less startled, oh-that’s-what-happens-when-I-press-the-shutter-button moments, I’d probably be better off with less hair. So a visit to the incomparable Wim Soeitoe, who, in the 23 years he’s cut my hair, has never been allowed to take it all off before:

It works well with a crash helmet, if nothing else. Tomorrow, we hit the road.

About Portrait Indonesia

In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. On this site she will share photos and occasional musings from her journey, which, if all goes well, will cover some 10,000 kilometers.

The journey will form the backbone of a book (and a multimedia BookPlus), which will include also reflections on her earlier incarnations in Indonesia. The first of these was as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ten years later she was back in the very different guise of epidemiologist, helping the Ministry of Health better understand Indonesia’s HIV epidemic. That work contributed to her first book, The Wisdom of Whores, published in 2008.

The new book, with the provisional title “Taking Tea with the Dead”, will deal less with sex and drugs, and more with the other enchanting and sometimes maddening foibles of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. We hope it will give you a taste of this beautiful, chaotic and unfathomable land.

Sent from the back of a cab in a Jakarta traffic jam

Elizabeth Pisani – Indonesian Journeys