A Unique Journey to Awaken Wae Rebo’s Ancient Spirits

As published in The Jakarta Globe Newspaper: http://jakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/features/a-unique-journey-to-awaken-wae-rebos-ancient-spirits/

People say good things come to those who wait. This adage perfectly fit my efforts to reach Wae Rebo, an otherworldly village, found among the scenic mountains of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara.

Wae Rebo requires some sacrifice to get there. The effort consisted of four hours trekking uphill following the meandering slippery paths of Manggarai’s bushy jungle while fighting off leeches that seized the day as fresh blood supplies crossed their territory.

But once the hurdles were overcome, I was rewarded by the mystical beauty of the ethereal village of Wae Rebo, where the living and the dead exist side by side.

It was my first time exploring the eastern part of Indonesia, which has largely been left unspoiled as the country’s development focuses on the west.

To reach Wae Rebo, visitors need first go to the nearest village of Denge, a four-hour drive from Ruteng, the capital of Manggarai.

In Denge, we were told to meet Martinus Hanggo, a Wae Rebo local and one of the initiators of tourism in the village.

He arranged for two other peoples to be our guides — Kani, another Wae Rebo local, and Amsy, a polite teenager from Nara village who is currently studying at a monastery in Iteng.

Following the lead from Kani, we began our trek from the elementary school in Lembor district, a 30-minute drive from Denge. That is as far as civilization stretches.

The trek began at a main road that was merely a wide muddy surface. It was exactly noon, the sun directly above us.

My excitement quickly faded, and after a short while my energy levels were down to almost nothing. But things took a turn for the better as soon as we entered the forest, where it was much cooler.

Soon we were surrounded by beautiful greenery. The birds started to chirp, their sounds echoing from various directions resonating on the lush forest wall.

The Todo forest surrounding Wae Rebo is home to many bird species and is protected by the work of conservation nongovernmental organizations.

Parrots, whistlers and Asian paradise flycatchers (Terpsiphone paradisi) can be found here.

In this serene setting, I lost my sense of time and space, and the walking suddenly became a lot easier, though I still had to watch my step. The path was so narrow that one misstep would see me fall into the abyss.

Kani said their ancestors had built this path long ago and, since the locals take only what they need from nature, there was no ambition to make it wider.

Our first pit-stop was Wae Lomba waterfall, a small river in the middle of Todo forest that serves as a resting point for locals to refresh themselves before continuing on, much like an oasis in the desert.

The water was pristine and the riverbed clearly visible from above.

As we rested, Kani handed us some tree branches to be used as walking sticks. “You’ll need them to continue,” he said.

As we climbed higher, the trail became more challenging. The path got smaller and almost indistinguishable from the vegetation on either side.

Children stand outside a house in the village of Wae Rebo. (JG Photo/Nadia Bintoro) Along the narrow lane, we bumped into other Wae Rebo locals who were carrying passionfruit, oranges and coffee on the top of their heads, on their way to the Denge market.

One of the women gave me some oranges. As I reached into my pocket to hand her some money, she refused with an earnest smile and simply said “baik-baik di jalan” — “take care on your way.”

Halfway through the trek, it began to rain heavily. Even though we were prepared and had brought a rain coat and dry bag, we needed to stop and take a rest in our second pit-stop in Pocoroko.

Pocoroko is also known as “Telepon Kerabat” (“Calling Your Relatives”) point. Located on the highest hilltop, this is the only place where a cellular signal is available.

As we took shelter from the rain, the fog started to wrap us in a heavy blanket. Here we were joined by Maximus, another local returning from Denge who was clearly excited to have some tourists visit Wae Rebo.

From Pocoroko onward, the track started to improve. In no time, we reached our third pit-stop, Nampe Bakok, where we were rewarded with a stunning view.

Standing on top of the hill, I watched Wae Rebo emerge from the thick fog. Its seven cone-shaped traditional houses floated like an ancient kingdom in the clouds.

I was blown away by its beauty as I rushed toward the village, forgetting the rain, the leeches on my feet and the bushes that scratched my bare hands. Upon entering Wae Rebo, I somehow felt like I had finally reached home.

Wae Rebo people believe their land does not belong to them, but is merely borrowed from their ancestors.

Before we were allowed to wander around the village and take photos of the houses, we needed to be welcomed and blessed by those ancestors.

The ritual was held by tribe leader Omah Tembong, the oldest man in Wae Rebo, who also lives in the main house and is believed to be a direct descendant of the ancestors.

As I ducked into the house, I was taken aback by its darkness. Electricity does not run in this village. After the first tourists had found their way to Wae Rebo, the village acquired an electricity generator that runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. — so it was not yet time for such luxury.

The tribe leader and two of his adjutants were dressed in sarongs and traditional hats. The atmosphere was so intense that I started to get goose bumps.

In traditional Wae Rebo dialect, Kani introduced each of us, explaining where we came from and our intention to stay in Wae Rebo.

As a token of sincerity, we needed to provide Rp 20,000 ($2.10). The bills were passed by hand during the ceremony: from our guide, to the first adjutant and then to the leader. Upon receiving the alimony, the village elder spelled the blessing and chanted a high-pitched prayer.

“With this, you become a member of the Wae Rebo village,” he said.

There are two lodging options in Wae Rebo; live in the main house with the elderly, or stay in a separate room for guests in the seventh house.

Inside, thin sheets of tikar mat and pillows made from pandan leaves are available for visitors. All the tikar were laid out at the side, circling the fire-pit in the center. The seventh house can host up to one hundred guests.

Located 1,200 meters above sea level, there are seven cone traditional houses called Mbaru Niang in Wae Rebo. In the past, many were severely damaged and on the verge of collapse. Fortunately, in 2009, an initiative led by architect Yori Antar saved the houses from extinction.

They rebuilt the 1,000-year-old structures with donations from a major company in Jakarta.

Today, the seven houses of Wae Rebo are standing strong and recently received the Top Award of Excellence from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at the 2012 Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

The seven houses are built in a circle, surrounding an altar often used as the center for ceremonies. From above, the framework of the huts looks like a spider web meant to signify the interconnection between the farmers and the soil that nourishes the people living there.

Having a round formation also helps the locals survive the jungle; the village is isolated in the middle of jungle, so the circular shape allows the residents to watch each other’s back and protect all inhabitants from possible dangers.

A total of 88 families live in Wae Rebo. Most of them earn a living from growing yams, corn, fruit and coffee.

Inside the homes one can see how ingenious the ancestors’ design had been.

Each mbaru niang is made up of five stories. The first level, the lutur , is used as the living quarters for family members. The second layer, lobo , functions as a barn. The third, lentar , stores seeds for the next harvest. The fourth, the lempa rae , is used to stock up food in case of harvest failure or long droughts.

The fifth level, hekang kode , which is held most sacred, is where offerings are placed for the ancestors.

The cone-shaped architecture also allows smoke, coming from the cooking dome inside the house, to escape.

We were soon covered by darkness as we ventured outside and stood in the holy circle with Max. I looked up to the sky and saw countless stars, like diamond dust, while Max started to chant prayers in his traditional language. As I stood in the center of the altar and listened to his prayer, it felt as if the spirits were alive.

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