Meeting the Mangarrai
I watch the Manggarai warrior raise his whip high above his head and bring it down on his sparring partner before dancing off again, jigging in time to the music. They dance around each other, puffing out their chests in the manner of a bird attracting his mate. The men are all bare-chested, rippling with the solid muscle, not of a bodybuilder, but that of someone who works and lives from the land. They are dressed in ceremonial clothing with elaborate feathered headdresses. Bells are attached to the headdresses, which jingle as they strut around, shaking their hips. Black sarongs are knotted around their waists, embroidered brightly with a pattern that is unique to their tribe. Although they hold a long whip and a shield, this is not a violent ceremony; more of a dance than a fight.
This tiny village, set in a lush green valley, is a few minutes drive off the bumpy pot-holed track known as the 'Trans-Flores Highway'. This area has not yet succumbed to the thriving tourist industry that many other parts of Indonesia have done. We have hired a four-wheel drive and a driver to take us across the island of Flores for five days. Luckily for us, our driver and guide, Edwardus is originally from the Manggarai area of East Flores, so speaks the local language. Whilst staying in the town of Ruteng last night, he heard that this ceremony was taking place, and asked whether we would be welcome. Unlike many other villages that put on 'shows' just for tourists, this is a bona fide ceremony and we are very excited, but really don't know what to expect.
Getting to the village consists of us clambering through what must have been somebody's back garden, weaving our way through a plot of tall green plants. Brushing past them we are lightly dusted with a fine mist of dew. It must have rained during the night, which is not surprising as the climate in Flores is a lot cooler than the rest of Indonesia due to the high mountainous altitude. We come out onto a dirt track and approach the village. A cluster of wooden huts is built around an open space. Today, however, the whole village is gathered round, watching the Cachi (pronounced Chachi) fighting.
We are led to the seats of honor (just having seats means that we are honoured), and presented with glasses of syrupy, gritty hand-ground coffee. Edwardus had previously explained to us that the Mangarrai only drink coffee, and that we must accept. Refusing a drink can cause great offence to your hosts. I was a little nervous at hearing this as I hate the smell of coffee, and have never drank it, but hey, who am I to offend the Village Chief? I apprehensively take tiny sips, and have to stop my face screwing up. It tastes very bitter, but in a strange way I enjoy the rich, smooth, almost chocolatey taste. This was definitely an acquired taste, but luckily for me I would get to acquire it as I am given that many glasses.
It is also customary for the Manggarai to present Betel nut to guests, and even our guidebooks told us that it was rude to refuse. The Chief's daughter kneels in front of us to present us with this stimulant, which she wraps inside a leaf. I dip a finger in some lime, wipe it on the leaf, and place in my mouth. I chew hesitantly, desperately trying to get through the bitter-tasting leaf. The betel nut tastes like very strong aniseed and makes my tongue go numb. I definitely feel a buzz as it hits my bloodstream, and wonder how all these people look so chilled when they drink endless glasses of coffee and chew betel nut all day.
Luckily I don't have to resist the urge to spit it out, as this is precisely what you are supposed to do. Betel nut causes a lot of saliva to be produced and mixing it with lime causes your spit to become red, which explains why a lot of people here have very toothy red grins. Unfortunately despite the rather foul taste, the polite English girl in me finds it really difficult to spit on the ground next to me with people watching with anticipation. Instead of a red glob flying out of my mouth, it kind of dribbles out. The leaf sticks in the sides of my mouth, so I have to pick it out and wipe it on the floor. I am just glad to have it out my mouth.
As we feel more comfortable in the village and realise just how hospitable and friendly Manggarai people are, we decide to explore the village ourselves. We do not get very far before we are invited into the main hut for more refreshments. Sitting down in a row with the Village elders, we are given more coffee and a bowl of Indonesian bananas. They are delicious and different to the ones we have back in England. They are much sweeter and tastier.
Lunch is served not long after; rice, stewed cassava leaves in goats milk and pork stew. These leaves are the staple vegetable in Flores, and normally have a very bitter taste. However, they taste quite sweet and smooth in the goats milk. We are most honoured at being served meat. In Indonesia, especially in this more remote and poorer island, meat is expensive and valued. You cannot buy it in a shop and the animals that a family own is the meat that they have. This is not normally much and eggs are usually eaten for protein.
Finally it is time for us to leave and the huge amounts of coffee drank makes itself known in my bladder and I have to say that magic word, recognisable in all languages; 'toilet'. For some reason everyone finds the idea of a Westerner going to the toilet quite funny. As I'm led through the smoke-filled kitchen out to the back, I can see the message being spread, as people discreetly laugh and point at me. Luckily none of them follow me out there, and I can go in peace.
As we walk back to our car a group of children follow us down the path. As we drive away from the village, I wave until I can no longer see them. I have a huge smile on my face, because although it is scary being completely immersed into an alien culture, it is so surprising how friendly and welcoming people can be. Although unable to communicate through language, I had a wonderful morning and met some great people. I wonder what they thought of us?
Published on 1/24/02