“Do you want to join a ceremony in my village tomorrow?” – we were asked by a lady in Bajawa, Flores island, who was hosting us for couple nights.
We had reached Bajawa completely exhausted, after over a 1000-km motorbike ride from Bali, on our way to Kelimutu volcano. The beginning of our stay in the town I associate with feeling terribly cold. Bajawa is a cold place due to its height – the town is elevated over 1200 m above the sea level. And since we embarked on that trip during Indonesian rainy season, the journey involved riding in huge rain (in fact some parts in the mountains were like riding through a huge cloud, with very little visibility and raindrops all around). I was falling ill.
What is more, we had been already behind our initial schedule by several days. In the rainy season ferries rarely operate as per timetable, so in the meantime we got stuck in Sape (Sumbawa island) waiting for the ferry to Labuan Bajo (Flores island) for five long days.
But the lady who invited us to the ceremony was so nice, and we were not in the mood for hitting the road again the following day, so we accepted her invitation. “They will be dancing there” – this is as much as she told us, which equals to how much I knew about the annual Reba ceremony, the most important time of the year in Ngada regency in Flores, which I was about to join.
And they were dancing indeed, but the dance and all other rituals that we saw in Warusoba village were astonishing.
The people living in the village formed a circle and began beating the ground with their bare feet to the rhythm of the song they sang along. One of the eldest men was clearly the leader, and often would take the position in the centre of the circle. At some point, a few kids joined the dance – they were visibly less confident with their moves, and didn’t have red teeth from betel leaves, a very common herbal stimulant – not just yet. The dance lasted all day and all night. Later the people explained us, that this dance is called Tandak and is conducted to gratitude the ancestors. Feet pounding has yet one more meaning – it expresses connection with the earth and prayers for good harvest.
Members of the community were taking turns, so they were not exhausted and could happily celebrate other elements of that special time which is the New Year, held every year in January or February in Ngada regency. The other elements include sacrifices of pigs or bulls at the porch of the most important house in the village – this part we were late for, it took place the previous day. We only saw the evidence of that – fresh blood on the porch from the day before, and pigs’ jaws or bulls’ horns from previous years.
Also, during that special time, each clan would gather at the inner part of the house – where there is a hearth in the heart of the house. They would discuss matters important for the family in the upcoming year, including maintenance works needed or planned weddings. But this element – for obvious reasons, we did not participate in.
What we were invited for, and we couldn’t skip it even if we wanted – was a great feast. It would be impolite to reject an invitation to any of the houses, so we eventually visited eight of them, and ate in each of those houses (well, in the last one the hosts had a little mercy and served only coffee). In the first houses mainly meet was served, so me and Dijana, who are vegetarians, ate mostly rice (with chilli). But we were treated there so nicely, that starting from 4th or 5th house we received a wide selection of vegetarian food: a lot of vegetables, eggs, tofu and tempe.
The rites held to express gratitude to ancestors and ensure abundant harvest come from the times long before Portugal claimed Flores their land. Together with colonisation, a new religion came – Roman Catholicism. But the new doctrine did not eradicate the old traditions – it grew around them and gave them a new, refreshed face. These days in Warusoba village and probably in all other villages in Ngada regency, in every house there are icons of Jesus and Mother Mary. One of the men dancing in the circle was wearing a T-shirt with an image of Jesus in the crown of thorns. To me, a person who grew up in a traditional Catholic family in Poland, the elements of animistic beliefs next to the image of Jesus Christ, was a bizarre juxtaposition. Indonesia doesn’t fail to surprise me.
What we could learn from people from around Bajawa is how the celebration is “passed” from one village to another, so if one person belongs to a few communities, he or she doesn’t need to choose where to go. Here it’s not the fixed date which is important, what matters is being together without the need to rush to another place. The life is happening now, and here, in the little Warusoba village.