One unforgettable night in Wae Rebo

Thailand February 19, 2014 00:00

By Shivaji Das
The Jakarta Post

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Home to the Manggarai tribe, this charming village in the middle of nowhere offers a wonderful respite for the chaos of everyday life

Located deep in the woods 1,100 metres above the sea, the village of Wae Rebo is our main destination on a recent visit to West Manggarai regency on Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara.
For the Manggarai people, visiting Wae Rebo is a type of pilgrimage. In Ruteng, the nearest sizeable town, we gain instant respect whenever we mention our intent to go there.
We travel on motorbike along a scenic road for six hours to reach Denge village. From there, we trek uphill through the jungle for four hours to reach a place called “mobile point” – so named because it is the last place where one can get a phone signal.
Wae Rebo is right in front of us.
Comprising seven conical houses neatly placed in a circle on a small lawn, Wae Rebo is crafted out of the top end of a giant landscape that begins with jagged peaks at one end that gently roll into a green carpet to the sea at the other end.
As soon as the villagers see us, they take their seats on an elevated circular platform, the altar, at the centre of the village. As we join them, a chicken is sacrificed and its entrails studied to foretell our future.
We’re soon led to the main house, Rumah Gendang, where the village elders sit in a line along the diameter of the circular floor.
Another chicken is sacrificed and its entrails studied.
The kepala kampung (village head) start addressing us in Manggarai. A young man called Yos sits next to us and translates his words to Bahasa Indonesia, “I wish you well and also wish good future for the people of Wae Rebo, Ruteng and Singapore.”
Yos later shows us around the village: “The Manggarai people believe that the circle is a symbol of unity. That’s why the village is arranged in a circle, the floors of our houses are circular and our village altar is called kompang, the Manggarai word for centre.”
As night falls, the temperature starts to drop and the children huddle together, pulling over their T-shirts to cover their arms and legs. 
“We grow coffee in these hills,” Yos tells us. “We carry down the coffee to the markets and on our way up, we bring back rice, soap and other supplies from the market. We follow a simple rule: 25 kilos when going down, 15 kilos when going up.”
Another young man, Matien, joins us: “We don’t have any school or hospital here. When someone is sick, we have to carry him or her on our backs to the nearest town. The children who go to school stay in a different village during the week but come home at weekends."
Yos is particularly proud of  the houses. “Wae Rebo has the only remaining examples of authentic Manggarai houses,” he says with pride.
“All the materials for the house are from the surrounding jungle. There is a meaning behind each element. Our ancestors who found this village wanted only seven houses. That’s why any new house is built separately from this compound.”
We enter the house meant for guests. The weak fluorescent lamp barely lights the room.
 “We don’t have electricity yet, so we bought a generator, which we run for three hours every night,” Yos explains. The roof of the house was about 10 meters high. A wide bamboo with holes cut in it acted as a dubious ladder.
The kepala kampung, incongruously wearing a hooded sweatshirt with “Princeton University” stamped on it, joins us. Through Yos, he tells us at 350 foreign visitors have come to Wae Rebo and more than 250 local tourists.
We make a foray to the kitchen, a separate small room at the back of the main house, and find about 10 women were busy with the cooking. An hour later, the younger girls enter the main room and place dishes on the floor. There’s a thin soup of chicken, a vegetable dish, fried dried fish, fried yam flakes, white rice and a plate of finely chopped green chilli soaked in vinegar.
At 9pm, the generator is turned off and it was time to sleep only to wake at dawn as the roosters start to crow.
The village gets to work early every day. The men leave for the coffee plantations while the women start spreading the coffee beans for drying.
After breakfast, it’s our time to leave this isolated wonderland.
We turn back and watch the mist forming a soft envelope around the houses of Wae Rebo then evaporate into the skies. For the locals, it’s just another day. For us, it’s a sad farewell to paradise.