Sun, 23 Jun 2002

West Timor: Safety in numbers on a great trip

Filomena Reiss, Contributor, Kupang, West Timor

Timor has long been a five-letter word, enough to scare away the most intrepid traveler.

Even though the troubles in the east have largely been settled, this beautiful island is still rarely visited due to residual fear. Some countries, such as Australia, continue to post travel warnings for the area because of the attacks on UN personnel in the border area, especially Atambua.

West Timor is the southernmost island of Indonesia, closer to Australia, geologically speaking, than Java. It is one of the Lesser Sunda islands separated from Java by the Wallace line, so the flora and fauna resemble those of Australia.

The main ethnic group of West Timor is the Atoni, who inhabit the mountain region, while the second-largest is the Tetun, who live mainly in Belu regency, as well as the Rotinese.

Sandalwood drew the Portuguese and the Dutch, who traded in the precious, fragrant commodity from the 16th century, but then West Timor was shunted aside on the international tourism map after the troubles started hitting its eastern neighbor in the 1970s and the sandalwood forests had been all but cut down.

Our journey started in Kupang, where two reassuring guides, Pak Alfred and Pae Nope, met us. Kupang is the capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur, comprising Flores, Sumba, Savu, Roti, Solor and other, smaller islands. The area is quite dry and barren except for lontar palm, which grows well in this part of West Timor.

Kupang is not as noisy as other big cities in Indonesia, apart from the blaring music that emanates from local minivans. It seems that this form of transport cannot attract passengers without a deafening sound system to drown out the opposition. A few good hotels and restaurants sprouted up around Kupang in anticipation of tourists.

On Sundays in Kupang, and for most of the island, it feels as though there is a big celebration going on, which is understandable, as 95 percent of the population is Christian. In all their Sunday finery, people walk along the roads to their respective churches, with many forced to wait outside the packed houses of worship.

From Kupang, the route veers off to the east toward Soe. On the way to Soe, stop at the village of Rotinese as it is worthwhile to see how Pak Pah makes the famous musical instrument known as a sasando. It has 16 or more strings, is made from lontar palm leaves and bamboo, and sounds and plays like a harp.

The Rotinese hat is quite distinct from any other, and was originally copied from the Portuguese helmet, which is also made there. This small cottage industry brings in some income to the family.

Soe is 800 meters above sea level and has a Mediterranean climate, although it gets cool in the evenings. Soe is an excellent base for trips to the hill stations and traditional villages.

Two hours away from Soe is the traditional village of Boti. The road to Boti is in poor condition, so be prepared to walk nine kilometers to reach the village; it is nonetheless a very pleasant walk and definitely worthwhile. This village has a population of 311, headed by Ama Nun'e Benu, a customary raja (ruler) who did not convert to Christianity, continuing to believe in traditional village law and animism.

The people here wear only handspun, naturally dyed, hand-woven sarongs. Tourists need permission from the traditional ruler to come and stay in Boti. There is a simple, reasonably priced losmen (lodging house) in the vicinity and a handicraft center, which provide a little income for the village. A war dance performance can be arranged here but book in advance as the performers are village people who work in the fields for most of the day.

The traditional markets are very colorful, especially Oinlasi and Maubesi, which are held once a week under banyan trees or along the road. Villagers from surrounding areas flock to the market in their bright red sarongs, carrying agricultural produce, betel nut condiments, hand-woven textiles, chemically dyed threads, weaving tools, homemade baskets and mats, traditional pottery, along with cattle, pigs, chickens and captive dogs. The people are friendly and always willing to have their photo taken, so it is an ideal spot for photographers.

The drive to Kapan and Fatunausus is breathtakingly impressive, and the mountain scenery is spectacular. These are the areas where the Atoni ethnic groups settled. Surprisingly, mandarin trees grow well in this area. Cone-shaped traditional houses, known as ume kbubu, dot the landscape. In the past, this type of house was used as a living area, but they have now been remodeled into rectangular dwellings.

Nowadays, the ume kbubu is mainly used as a kitchen and a place where corn is dried and stored for future consumption. Building this traditional house involves joint community work. When someone decides to build an ume kbubu, villagers help gather the necessary materials within the space of a week. Then the frame is constructed the following week, and the thatched roof completed within a day, which says something for the power of community cooperation.

A walk through Fatumenasi forest brings to mind an Australian forest. Tall trees, meadow grass and small lakes make for a pleasant walk. It take a few hours' walk to reach Oeneno village. The walk ends up at the base of a huge rock, where the locals place offerings to their ancestors before planting corn and performing other ceremonies.

Kefamenanu is in the north-central part and is an ideal gateway for visiting some interesting villages like Maslete, Temkesse, Fafinesu and Oelolok.

The royal palace of Maslete has the largest lopo in this region: A lopo is a semi-conical house built on four stilts, and a traditional meeting place for the elders. In this region every house has a lopo built in front. It is like an extension to the living room and a weaving place for the women.

Temkese is another interesting traditional village perched on top of a hill. There are only 16 families in this village and they observe a traditional way of life. You need a permit to go to Temkese and picture-taking is not allowed unless one of the elders agrees after an offering of betel nut. It is also a bad omen for the village if anything is dropped on the ground.

As you travel further east you come to Belu regency, home to the Tetun (sometimes called Belunese) ethnic group. The land here is fertile and irrigated rice is cultivated, as well as corn, planted twice a year. The Tetun claim that their ancestors were originally from Malaka on the Malay peninsula. Lorodirma village is hidden behind tall trees on a rocky hill.

During the time when West Timor was divided into different kingdoms, a visitor had to pass two guard posts before being received by the king. Haitimuk is a village with traditional, thatched-roof houses, built on stilts about one meter high, typical of these people. A queen once headed the village, but now a raja runs it. The village of Besikama is a matrilineal society where the villagers still recognize the queen or the "mama raja".

The textiles of West Timor are vast and colorful, similar to those from other parts of the country but still distinct. The styles, colors and motifs reflect the origin and identity of the wearer, especially on market days. In Soe, men wear the red- striped and finely woven middle-panel sarong. As you go further north, bird motifs are seen in the textiles. In Belu, a fine- striped blanket with a detailed ikat strip on each side of the panel gives a distinctive look.

Buna and Sotis weaving techniques are often added to the sarongs, which considerably increases the value of these textiles. Most of the threads, chemically dyed, are imported from Surabaya and are sold at traditional markets.

Before leaving Kupang, a visit to the museum is essential. It is small, well laid out and informative, with a wide selection of artifacts and textiles from West Timor and East Nusa Tenggara on view.

West Timor was once called the "sandalwood island", but due to overtrading in this precious wood by Dutch and Portuguese traders, sandalwood can be found hardly anywhere. There is a small sandalwood factory close to Kupang, but most of the wood is sent to the master carvers of Bali.

Local tour operator Pae Nope, who also belongs to the Amanuban royal family, is hopeful that many more tourists will visit this part of Indonesia. A trip to West Timor is definitely a novel cultural adventure and, in my experience, traveling there is both enjoyable and safe.


* Visit during the dry season in May-October.

* Contact a local operator so they can arrange your travel plans to make your stay more organized.

* It is hot in Kupang, but as you go north toward Soe and beyond, it can get cool in the evenings, so bring a sweater.

* The restaurants beyond Kupang are still not used to catering for tourists yet, so be prepared to eat warung (sidewalk stall) food or if you are fussy, bring your own.

* Don't just start taking photographs in the traditional villages: Wait until the guide has been given approval by the village head.