Cathy and I are off to Sumba Island to see to see the Pasola festival. Held early each year it is a spectacular harvest festival where bareback spear-wielding, ikat-clad horsemen gallop at each other hurling their hand-carved spears to ritualise traditional tribal conflicts, appease the spirits and bring a good harvest.
Sumba is a smallish island south of Flores which retains much of its traditional way of life. With rugged savannah and thatched hilltop villages clustered around megalithic tombs the locals continue to produce hand-spun naturally dyed ikat and pay homage to their ancestors. Their horses are status symbols and Sumba is Indonesia’s leading horse-breeding island.
We catch an early 1 hour flight from Bali to Tambolaka, the western capital of Sumba where we have booked accommodation at the Maringi Eco Resort run by the Sumba Hospitality Foundation. It’s all pretty laid-back at the arrival terminal where we are greeted by ‘Angel’ one of the students and driven to the resort about twenty minutes away. There is little tourist infrastructure in Sumba but that is slowly changing with the Maringi and the exclusive Sumba Nihiwatu resort.
Angel who is training in front–office checks us in and takes us on a tour. We meet the students at the restaurant, the kitchen and housekeeping, see the open class rooms and meeting halls, the pool and the vegetable gardens. It’s hot and dry but the resort gardens are green and well-kept. We have a delightful spacious room constructed of bamboo. We take a swim and in the late afternoon walk the grounds where groups of students sit and chat and ask us questions, what is your name, where are you from, why are you visiting Sumba… ‘Ahhh yes, the Pasola is very exciting you will really enjoy it’. At dinner we are served a delicious four course meal prepared and presented by the students, we chat to the other guests, there is only six of us, all westerners wanting to see the Pasola.
We breakfast early and join our guide for the two hour trip south to the Lamboya Pasola field. Despite what we have read the road is in good condition and there is little traffic as we wind our way through the hills to the central town of Waikabubak and here we find some nice concrete statues of a horse and a buffalo and then on to the Pasola on the southern coast.
As we approach the festival the road become very busy with locals many dressed in colourful traditional clothing jammed into overloaded bemos, and whole families on motor bikes, some ride on horses and others walk. It seems the Governor from East Sumba will be in attendance today and there is a large contingent of police and military. We are guided to a local house where a couple of policemen are chatting. It is customary for locals to offer betel nut, food and drink to Pasola visitors. Cathy passes her betel nut to me and suddenly all eyes are watching, a local demonstrates betel nut etiquette and with much local laughter I spit the red dye on the ground, it seems I have passed the test. We have a small meal of goat stew and rice and tea as we chat to the police and our hosts. It seems having westerners visit and eat under your roof is quite prestigious, getting them to try betel nut is a bonus. It takes half an hour to say goodbye and thank you. We follow the crowd to the Pasola field, all the time responding to never-ending questions: what is your name, where are you from, will you be in my photo?
Cathy has her sun umbrella up, and a couple of local girls close in, steal some shade and make small talk, and then offer to hold the umbrella for her. We round a corner and suddenly see and hear the crowd about six deep around the edge of the huge fenceless field. It’s hot, there is no shade and it seem Cathy’s shade thieves are now her best friends for the duration of the event.
We had heard a few descriptions of the Pasola but nothing had really prepared us. It’s reminiscent of a local footy match but with no rules and no umpire. There is the horse mounted participants, a unruly local crowd, a couple of contingents of police and some military reinforcements, a bit of tear gas and a couple of APCs. There is only a handful of westerners, one drone and a couple of SLR cameras, but everyone else has hand phones and souvenir selfies with horses or westerners are prized.
There are two horse mounted tribes/teams in traditional dress armed with javelin size sticks at each end of the field, goaded by the spectators and opponents, small groups of riders randomly charge into the centre and launch their spears at the others who are simultaneously launching an attack. Our guide stays close protecting us from wayward spears, out of control horses and overzealous crowds.
When a spear hits home the crowd roars and the offended team and supporters shrill to awaken their team spirits to seek revenge…and when it all gets too intense, the police and military calm things down and then it all starts over again. There are no winners, but when a decent amount of blood has been spilt by the wounded, everyone agrees the spirits have been appeased and the crops are blessed….the sun is high, the teams retire and the traditional singing and dancing begins and the spectator’s it’s time for them to line up for soft drinks, ice-cream and snacks…
We wander back amongst the crowd in the general direction of our car and driver, it quite chaotic but Marfen our guide starts to look relaxed now that we are clear of horses and spears. It has been an exciting event but Marfen has more in store. On the drive back we visit a traditional village of Prai ljing near Waikabubak. It’s a decent sized village with traditional tall roofed houses set around a central area. The dogs barely raise an eyebrow and locals nod or smile as they go about their work, drying and grinding corn, weaving ikat, nursing children.
We spot a small piece of ikat hanging from a beam, we chat to a mother nursing her baby, and it seems it’s a traditional male headband and yes it could be for sale, then the husband appears with another piece which is a female sash which also could be for sale. Then a couple more villagers come by, then a couple of elders, then children and then dogs, the crowd has arrived and suddenly the tables have been turned and we are now the fish in a bowl. So, of course we buy. The woman huddle around Cathy and fit the sash, while John’s head scarf is neatly folded and wound around his head with the elders giving detailed instructions. Dressed at least partially like a local it’s all high fives, grins and smiles as we say goodbye…priceless.
Hot and thirsty we return to the resort, and then refreshed by a swim in the pool, a few beers, we enjoy dinner al fresco as we share stories and photos of our Pasola adventures. Next morning over a leisurely breakfast we chat with the students and staff about our Pasola and Village experiences – the students seem as excited as we are! Mid-morning Angel appears to take us to the airport and less in than 2 hours we are back in our Villa in Bali.
Thank you Sumba for your chaotic Pasola festival, friendly traditional villages and amazing ikat, thank you students for your enthusiasm, and most of all thank you Sumba for preserving your traditional culture.