After Flores, we had planned to go to sumba – a small, traditional island to the south – however, the time and route to take us there was too complex. Looking at a map of Indonesia, we played with the thought of going to west Timor. Timor is the most easternly point of Indonesia – East Timor is now independent of Indonesia and thus we looked into researching west Timor. Finding little to no information about West Timor on the Internet, naturally, we decided to book a flight. On our arrival in Kupang, we shared knowing glances which spoke of concern and possible regret to our decision to come to this unchartered, non-touristy island. Time spent reading blog after blog in hopes of finding some information about this place was mostly in vain – we found snippets on blogs about tours to traditional villages but these were short extracts and seemed more to be thrown in for added value rather than the main attraction.
In Kupang, we stumbled across a bar near the shoreline where we stopped to hide from the clammy heat and found some solace in an ice cold beer. The locals sat on bar stools adjacent to ours, whispering loudly in Indonesian while their bulging eyes clung to our skin. Before long, one of the locals – who we later learned worked in Australia for a few years – spoke the words on everyone’s mind – and ones we would come to hear numerous times in the next week and come to smile at – ‘why do you come here? To west Timor? Why not in Bali?’ Over a few more beers, we chatted with the locals, explaining our extremely rough plan we had attained from the few blog snippets and looking at a map – to travel to Kefa, from where we could venture to a few traditional villages. At first wary – more so confused maybe – of us, their furrowed brows soon relaxed into broad smiles as they flung questions at us, all the while plying us with more beer. The young children lingered around us, watching us intently but giggling and turning away as soon as we returned their gaze. Passersby’s nodded questioningly to the locals in our direction, their mouths gaping open unselfconsciously, their heads turning as far as their necks would allow once they were past. Armed with the information the locals provided on when and where to get the local bus to Kefa, we started to feel a little more at ease in West Timor.
Little did we know then, that Kefa – a small town in the midst of a, predominantly, unexplored island – would provide us with an unforgettable experience and memories we will cherish for years to come.
At 6am the next morning, we got on a bemo – traditional Indonesian public transport – to Kefa. The small bus was spray painted in bright colours and patterns, void of any windows, and seated 30 people, crammed into small crevices of the bus whilst nursing children, holding poultry in cages and securing boxes and bags between their knees. We squeezed into two seats at the front of the bemo, our long gangly legs immediately shouting angrily at our bodies as our knees became indented into the seat in front – turns out Indonesian transport isn’t made for tall people! Half an hour later, the small bus moaned as the driver – cigarette religiously in place – pulled onto the main road. Squashed against each other, we gazed sleepily out of the window just as the large speaker above our heads began jumping and blared excruciatingly loud, traditional Indonesian music into our ears. My first instinct – driven by my sleepy, grumpy brain – insisted I do something to make it stop, but as the bus driver turned around and grinned at us – whistling to the tune while bearing his teeth to stop his cigarette from falling out – and as I watched the other passengers – their laps crushed by small children, poultry, large bags – chuckle and hum along to the music, I could feel the sleepiness wear off and a small smirk begin to appear on my face. The bemo stopped at the sign of every individual on the side of the road – a young boy hanging out of the bus hollered in Indonesian, attempting to coax them onto the bus. About half way through the 5 hour journey, we stopped for lunch. During the stop, locals at the bus stop stared unapologetically at us – pausing their previous conversations, some hollered, some shouted ‘hello mam, hello sir’, while one man came onto the bus and – without any notion that it may make me feel uncomfortable – started taking photos of me with his phone without saying anything. I smiled and took my phone out in pretence of taking photos of him, he roared in laughter, thanked me and scurried off the bus to show his friends. While I sat awaiting the bus’ departure, a young family in front of me took out tupperware boxes, delving into a pre-made lunch of noodles and rice. Catching my eye and smiling, the woman proceeded to serve up a portion of their food on a plastic plate and hand it back to me over the seat. Of course – bound by my own cultural norms – I tried to kindly refuse, but she insisted and smiled back at me intermittently asking ‘Bisa, Bisa?’ which means ‘OK, OK?’ I felt humbled by this small act of kindness so inherent in the Indonesian culture and slowly came to think West Timor might just be amazing after all.
After finding a hotel in Kefa, we wandered around the small town, being followed wherever we walked by sets of questioning eyes. On that first day, we had the good fortune to meet Denny. Having come too far from our hotel, we were searching for the way back and Denny offered to give us a lift. Sipping on beers on that first night, Denny too asked, slightly baffled, ‘why are you in Kefa? Why aren’t you in Bali?’ – we laughed, and explained that we wanted to explore some areas which weren’t crowded with tourists. We had certainly found that – the whole time we were in West Timor, we didn’t see another foreigner. We explained to Denny that we wanted to go to the traditional villages, but refused to take a tour guide as they were too expensive. He pulled his mobile from his pocket and spoke fast paced Indonesian for a few minutes into his phone, and then hanging up, he turned to us and explained that he and his friends would take us. ‘Not as tour guide, as friend. We are friends’ he assured us with a smile and another slug of his beer. Even then, with the prospect of spending the next day immersed in local traditions with individuals – friends – from Kefa, we had no idea that the week to come would go well beyond that.
At the traditional village the next day, I felt at once uncomfortable and privileged; uncomfortable, for I have never been so immersed in another’s strict traditions and way of life – unlike a different country – where generally there is some room for compromise, for an understanding of your position as a foreigner and thus not accustomed to their culture – the village appeared so sacred to me, almost like a secret, and so different from anything I had ever immersed myself within. I was wary of disrespecting the villagers, especially the elder, in any way. Privileged, for being given the opportunity to witness such a culturally different way of life – one without a dependence on electricity, a dependence on government, one void of the multitude of objects and obsessions modern society depends on, fights about and dies over everyday.
Our newly found friends – Denny, Ricky and Harry – liaised with the villagers in Indonesian and translated back to us in English, informing us about their way of life and answering any questions we posed to them.
On route back from the village, Ricky invited us to dinner that night with his family.
Kefa’s climate reached its peak temperature first thing in the morning, creating a hot and stifling start to the day, which then gradually cooled throughout the day, easing to a comfortably cool temperature by the evening. Basking in the soft breeze of the evening, we sat outside of Ricky’s house meeting the many family members – it was reminiscent to me of large family gatherings, and yet this was a daily occurrence for them. Sipping on ice cold Bintang beers, the conversation grew between the group, intermittently changing from English to Indonesian and back again. Ricky’s mum and dad presented appetisers on the table, gesturing towards them with their hands and keen, excited eyes glowing in our direction. The fried banana with melted cheese and oat cookie appetisers had only just settled in our bellies before it was announced that dinner was ready. Moving inside, the round table was set with 8 places and a fast paced conversation in Indonesian took place as Ricky insisted for us to sit down and immediately passed us the rice.
The table was set with a wooden, circular, spinning device where a variety of dishes were placed and thus each individual simply spun it towards them when they wanted more. We could not put our cutlery down for a second before one family member, quickly followed by a chorus of voices, insisted we have more rice, more curry, more soup, more duck. Over mountains of delicious food, the conversation flowed from exchanging histories of our respective countries, to musing over the differences in our cultural traditions, to opinions on movie stars. On that first evening at Ricky’s house, we flowed in and out of conversation, our laughter never far from the surface, and all of our eyes sparkling with a delight of learning of new cultures and ways of life – their constant bemusement that we had ended up in Kefa and our knowing smiles as the beginning of a friendship made its way into our views.
Over the next few days we were spoilt in every way possible – we were accepted firstly as their guests, and later as their family – and as we came to learn in the next few days, there was nothing we could do, nor nothing they would allow us to do to repay them for the unfaltering kindness which they showed us, and for welcoming us into a culture which we grew to love even more than we already did. Each day Ricky, Denny, Mel and Ivon took us to some hidden gem on the outskirts of Kefa; a beautiful beach, Ricky’s farms where we sipped on fresh coconuts, a river where the locals went to bathe and wash their clothes, and each night we dined at Ricky’s, served with a plethora of Indonesian dishes, rich in flavour and always varied.
At first I felt uncomfortable with the lack of boundaries and the lack of personal space – in Indonesian culture no questions go unasked, no particular etiquette serves as an excuse to be “polite”. Over time I grew to love this policy and laugh at it. From freshly baked cakes brought to our hotel room, to homemade popcorn, to hours spent munching on delicious (and some suspicious) home baked delicacies, to days and nights spent chatting and laughing, we felt incredibly lucky to have met such kind hearted people.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that my words fall short in their ability to describe our experiences in Kefa, the kindness of these people and our undeniable love for Indonesia – a culture which stripped me to my core, challenged my beliefs and values and built me back up again to view the world in a different light.
Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman
Be weird. Be wonderful.