I had first heard of Sumba when I was reading Indonesia, Etc.—one of those books passed around by over-excited ETAs (English Teaching Assistants)—as Elizabeth Pisani opens her tale of solo travel around much of Indonesia with a scene in a village on the island, with a little boy inviting her to meet his grandmother, who, it turns out, has passed away and it awaiting burial in his family’s home. Her focus on this brief description of Sumba was on the traditional culture that still very much prevails on the island, a way to entice her readers into her exploration of a country that was so different from the Western world.
Later, when I was living in Indonesia and friends caught on to my interest in Indonesian fabrics, Sumba was again talked about almost incessantly. It is well known amongst Indonesians that the most beautiful ikat (a type of woven fabric) is found on Sumba and as I eagerly added to my ever-growing fabric collection, friends encouraged me to go there, to truly make my collection complete.
Whether I was coming across descriptions in books or blogs, or hearing about the island from friends who had visited or lived there, Sumba was always painted as somewhere different. “It’s so dry, and arid… more like Australia than any other place in Indonesia,” a friend who visited said. “The culture is very different from other parts of Indonesia,” my friend whose family was from Sumba told me. Sumba was indescribable, undefinable: no one could quite pin it down for me. It was just… different.
So of course, I had to see it.
Sumba is not an easy place to get to, so it wasn’t a trip that I was able to manage during my two years as an ETA. But after I extended my stay in Indonesia past the end of my third grant (this time as the ETA Researcher/Coordinator), I made sure to schedule time for Sumba into my travels. A friend from the office suggested I stay with her family while I was there, and I happily took her up on the offer. My trip to Sumba was actually the last bit of travel I did while in Southeast Asia, and I could not have picked a better place to visit.
Sumba was absolutely gorgeous, and it is true that it’s terrain was quite different from anything I had seen yet in Indonesia (this was also my first time traveling so far Southeast in the country, so, to be fair, it made sense that the landscape was not the same from the northern and western parts I was more accustomed to traveling in). Beautiful white sand beaches stretched along the shore, and rolling hills with dry grasses, a burnt brown under the fierce sun, stretched on, seemingly forever. I never got enough of staring out the window when I found myself in a car: Sumba is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
As dry as the hills were (it was the dry season when I visited), there were still streaks of vivid green wherever there were rivers, and I spent a lot of time around the waterfalls and swimming holes the area offered. As a Central New York farm girl, I have always enjoyed rivers and lakes more so than the ocean, and while I have come to appreciate the distinct freshness of a salty breeze and the plethora of wildlife in coral reefs, I still feel most at home in the clear, cool waters that meander through a forest—be that forest tropical or deciduous.
I was very lucky in the timing of my trip to Sumba, as I was able to see some rather decorated kuda (horses), while I was there. In addition to having a unique landscape and beautiful fabrics, Sumba is also known for the horse races that occur a few times each year. The race season does not start until August, so I thought I would have to miss much of the kuda part of the culture. However, President Jokowi (Joko Widodo, if you are looking for his long name, the president of Indonesia), happened to be visiting Sumba during my trip to the island, and the bupati (regent) of the area greeted Jokowi with an entourage of one hundred kuda. We already had plans for the day, and no one seemed interested in changing them to watch the parade through the city, but I was able to visit where the horses were gathering that morning, preparing to greet the president. The riders all wore pieces of ikat, and the freshly-washed kuda gleamed in the sunlight. I was so glad I was blessed enough to be there.
I also made sure I did not miss out on the beautiful Sumba fabrics I had heard so much about. I had thought that I would mostly be exploring ikat, the kain Sumba (fabric from Sumba) I was most used to seeing at fabric festivals in Jakarta, and which I had previously seen made in Toraja, in Southern Sulawesi. But when I arrived in Sumba I learned that ikat is only made my those who live in the inland portion of the island. The Sawu people, who live along the eastern coast of the island, near where I was staying, use a different process to make tenun Sawu (sawu weaving). Ikat means “to bind” or “to bundle,” in Indonesian, and the name is given to several fabrics across the archipelago that are made using the ikat process, in which the threads are tied (or “bundled) before dying, in order to create the pattern. Because the threads are dyed before they are put on the loom, a sort of jagged pattern results. The Sawu people instead use reeds to hold threads in place before weaving the motifs directly into the fabric, creating a much neater pattern. Both fabrics are full of earthen colors and detailed motifs, and it was difficult for me to resist buying every piece I came across (not that I could have afforded this even if I didn’t have better self-control: larger ikat and tenun Sawu pieces can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the pattern). I visited several kampung tenun (weaving villages) while in Sumba, and was able to learn so much about the processes involved in making ikat and tenun Sawu from the women there, who patiently answered all of my questions.
Sumba’s landscapes and fabrics were beautiful, but the most memorable part of the trip, for me, was the people I met. My friend’s family was absolutely lovely: they took me to all the best places to eat, and the children were the best companions for playing in gorges or running along the beach. In this way, Sumba was no different than any other place I have been in Indonesia: the hospitality and openness I received in Sumba was no different than that I have been so fortunate to experience throughout the archipelago.
Sometimes Indonesia surprises me because of how different it can be from place to place, and sometimes it surprises me because, no matter where I seem to go, there is something somehow the same, an intangible undercurrent that is the essence of the nation. Sumba illustrated this perhaps better than any place I have yet had the chance to visit, and so it seemed appropriate that this was my last trip in the country: leaving me astonished once again, reminding me that I still do not know everything about this amazing country, and making me feel so comfortable, as though I had somehow found a way to feel at home almost anywhere in this vast archipelago.