By Ed Junaidi on May 22, 2018
Once in a while, during our hike, we passed by several locals commuting between Wae Rebo village and Denge. Sometimes we passed by one or two men walking briskly, and we passed them again along the trail, this time coming from the opposite direction. These are ‘the postmen’, who are hired to deliver various items between the village and Denge. They make several walking trips between the two villagesin a day.They can complete a walking trip in 20 minutes, which the rest of us need two hours and a half. I aspire to reach that level of fitness and stamina, one day…
As we explore the area, the locals greeted us with warm and welcoming smilesas we passed by. It touched my heart to see how the locals are impressively polite despite being isolated far from civilisation. They also seemed to have gentler demeanour than big-city dwellers. Along the hike, we stumbled upon outsiders like us too.
Located amongst the Todo Forest at Manggarai West Flores in East Nusa Tenggara province, Wae Rebo is dubbed as the ‘village above the clouds’, erected 1,100 metres above sea level; however, to get there, we only need to hike up to 600 metres. The village issurrounded by mountains and in the morning when temperature is optimum, clouds gather around the lower levels of the mountain where this village is on, making it look like floating in the sky. Though remote, Wae Rebo is fast attracting travellers from the world over since it offers various off-the-beaten-path experience that travellers seek. It even helps to put Flores on the map, which is still relativelyuntouched.
I honestly recommend that travellers go to Flores now before it is overrun by more tourists and becoming more commercial, thus losing its authenticity. As a matter of fact, the government of Indonesia targetstodramatically increase the number of tourists to Labuan Bajo, the capital city of Flores, from 54,000 in 2013 to 500,000 in 2019[i]. The government invests heavily on infrastructure and facilities to accommodate Flores tourism boom.
Wae Rebo is not just a heritage village, but a conservation project by the local community to conserve and protectits conical traditional houses called mbaru niang, high pitched roof supported by structure made from wood and cladded with layers of palm leaves. This project – initiated by Tirto Utomo Foundation and Rumah Asuh – is acclaimed as environmentally sustainable andfosters the community’s sense of unity and pride at the same time. It alsogarnered the Award of Excellence by UNESCO in 2012 as recognition to the community’s efforts in preserving their unique identity despite difficulties and challenges.
Wae Rebo is the only village in the entire province of East Nusa Tenggara that still has complete structure of the mbaru niang houses and special aspects of a Manggarai culture, seven units in total to honour the seven mountain peaks surrounding the village. Each unit has rooms where one family resides in each room. Although I may not call it a kitchen, there is a cooking area right in the middle of each house with stoves and storage places for food, cookware and crockery. It is placed in the middle so that during cooking, the smoke from the stove fire would rise to the top of the house and not suffocate the people living inside. Such clever technique is also similar to one of the traditional houses I visited in Japan.
The roof of each house typically consists of five levels. Each level serves its own purposes such as storingseeds for next harvesting season, food as preparation for drought or disasters, and the top level usually reserved to place offerings for the ancestors. Although the members of the community are mostly Catholics, they still practice their old beliefs.
We stayed one night in Wae Rebo and were lucky to be placed in the main house called Rumah Gendang, where each leader from eight families lives. This is the biggest house compared to the rest. This is also a ceremonial house when they gather for festivities or rituals, including the place where they keep their ancestors’ heirlooms, gongs and drums called gendang. However, when specifically referring to the house, the word gendang is not about the drums but a derivation from the word gadang, which means ‘big’, not only in Manggarai culture but also in Minangkabau culture from West Sumatera. It is believed that the ancestors of the Manggarai who were of Minangkabau descent went all the way to Flores as sailors and traders. To remind them of their roots, a totem that looks like buffalo’s horn is placed on top of the roof, another signature feature of mbaru niang houses.
The people of Wae Rebo live in social structures similar other communities. The men go out hunting or harvesting in the jungle, while the women help with the processing of the beans for luwak coffee and weaving traditional cloth.
They are also aware of the importance of education and nowadays, when the children are reach six years old, they will be sent to live with their relatives in Denge or Dintor to get formal school education and return home during weekends and school holidays. Michael, a young Manggarai man of Wae Rebo who welcomed and showed us around speaks fluent English with impressive Australian accent.
Truth be told, there are not that many activities can be done in Wae Rebo. You can ask the locals to take you to a very beautiful waterfall about 40 minutes’ trek from the village. But most of the visitors choose to enjoy the social activities with the friendly locals. Take a story book with you and read it to the children; you could even donate the book to the village when you leave. Other than that, travellers mostly spend the days taking awesome photos or sipping luwak coffee while enjoying the view. There is no television here and definitely no Internet connectivity – it will be just you, the traditional community, and pristine nature. I think this is the best experiences ever because this is the time when travellers will be able to be in touch with their very selves and find themselves.
Tip: Take the journey during the day instead of at night. You’d feel less nauseated when you can see the road. I have been on the trip twice, both day and night, and find that it is always better travelling when there is sunlight.
[i]Tourism in Indonesia: Labuan Bajo (Flores), the ‘New Bali’? Indonesia Investments. 05 November 2016. Web: https://www.indonesia-investments.com/id/culture/culture-columns/tourism-in-indonesia-labuan-bajo-flores-the-new-bali/item7335