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One-day-chief o’ Melo

A hunt in the deep forest where I vanquished a wild boar with my bare hands followed by the martial Caci (pronounced ‘chachi’) dance when I leapt and brought the whip down on my opponent from a jaw-dropping sky-angle. It didn’t take any of these for the Manggarai tribe of Kampung Melo (‘kampung’ is ‘village’ in Indonesia) in Flores island and their headman to declare me the chief from the visitors’ side for the day; guess they decided to settle for the guy stumbling about with the biggest backpack and lachrymose eyes, thanks to the sudden bright afternoon sun after an air-cooled, 45-minute drive from Labuan Bajo, 17 winding kilometres away. In Indonesia it is not difficult to feel the welcome anywhere you go but in Melo you actually live it.

The clan leader in his ceremonial finery and heirloom kris – a sheathed zigzag rapier believed to accommodate spirits tucked into an ornate sash around his waist – waited for us with other finely turned out village members beneath a bamboo archway decked up with palm leaves shaped into intricate patterns called penjor, part of every ceremony in Indonesia usually with an offering next to it on the ground. Each of us was welcomed with an ikat shawl handcrafted by the village women. Gilpy little girls giggled as we were led up the hummock to the village square by the adults chanting what sounded like a communal orison, difficult to follow even for those from Indonesia. The Manggarai inhabiting western Flores have never numbered more than a million but speak their own language and follow their own political system which revolves around clans. There are primarily three clans – each assigned their own social function in the largely agrarian community. As we climbed higher we could see larger and larger clearings – the tribe practices swidden agriculture and rising population pressures have mandated the clearing of an increasing acreage.

Rooster, rupiah and reading

The two chiefs sat facing each other on a bamboo mat in the centre of the village. One waxed earnest, sonorous, on how privileged he was to host the other and his well, tribe. The other nodded vigorously at every translated gist and looked around solemnly at the members – raucous with hunger and in rapture by the fantastic views from the village which goes all the way to the Komodo Island across the waters. Gifts and money were exchanged, primarily one-way. This included a rooster with drooping eyelids, probably the midday heat or just plain bored playing out its designated role of feathered regalia in numerous other welcomes before. The ceremonies, the fiesta that was soon to follow and the traditional programmes are all organised by a cultural cooperative which has taken upon itself to keep alive the centuries-old customs and traditions of the Manggarais by re-enacting them for tourists.

A paan box – filigree encrusted, oblong metal, rusted to iron brown – was taken around by a robust built woman with pleasant features, dressed in silken brocades and wearing a balibelo, an ornamental headgear worn by the women of the tribe – something like Captain Spock gone native in Tahiti. Following cues from the (real) chief, I helped myself to a piece of areca nut and a generous gob of lime, betel leaves weren’t around. Appetisers – the sweeter, cloudy tuak and the clearer, more potent sopi, palm toddy – were brought out in bongos or cups fashioned from coconut shells. The meal was sumptuous: chicken and fish – fried and barbecued, beef – minced and garnished with grated coconut, a lemony curry and red rice cooked textured with a smattering of husk.

The lunch was served in a modest hovel on stilts in the purlieu of the square where the earlier ceremonial exchanges took place. I was surprised to see it was actually a library with a large collection of illustrated and comic books. It was my first encounter with Taman Bacaan Pelangi or Rainbow Reading Gardens started in 2009 by conservationist and blogger Nila Tanzil to encourage reading among children of the under developed provinces of eastern Indonesia. Started with just 200 books and one centre, today there are almost 40 Rainbow Reading Gardens across 14 islands. Me and my fellow tribe members were sitting in one of the earliest centres in Flores; over the next few days I would be visiting some more around the island enthralled by the sheer nobility of the idea.

One cracking performance

The dolmen by the corner of the courtyard shimmered under the sun in anticipation of the action coming up; drums, gongs and gamelans were being placed. The women of Indonesia are naturally malacophonous and this trait just gets increasingly breathtaking as you head into the interiors. At Melo the women excelled at both singing a capella, playing instruments and were endowed with a glorious nimbleness of feet as it soon turned out – jumping deftly untouched by the staves during the bamboo dance. The curtain-raiser was the centrepiece of Manggarai machismo, the Caci dance, a whip fight choreographed to minimum physical contact and maximum showmanship. The faux chief was summoned to crack the first whip.

My opponent was shirtless, wearing white hessian trousers flapping in the cooling breeze that flowed through the arena. Draped over the trouser was the handwoven songket, a broader variant of the shawl I was given earlier. From the songket a tail rose rigid with a furried tip; I gathered it was to add to the overall ferocity quotient. It all worked pretty well till I heard the plangent cowbells that were attached to his ankles. It was pretty jarring for it didn’t sit well with the warrior’s own lithe motions like a boxer retreating to his corner waiting for the KO call. He wore a horned wooden mask and held a leather shield. Our eyes met and he smiled. Clever! I measured the distance to the shield with the whip. In my best Troy-inspired move, without batting an eyelid I did a tricky lunge from the left and lashed out from the right. Soon enough I was relieved of the whip and the real chief signalled for the festivities to begin.

The fervour, I hoped, might be something they have come to expect of my tribe.



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After taking a master degree in communication and journalism, Thommen Jose tried to sit behind a desk as a sub editor with a national newsweekly but did not last very long. An avid adventurer and distance biker, he soon discovered that he has to hit the road quite often to keep going. Currently based out of Delhi, he develops communication collaterals for the development sector, has scripted and directed a travel series on Tibet and Nepal, writes travelogues for newspapers and recently wrote and photographed a travel guide, ‘Experience Agra and around on the road’ which was published by the Times of India. is his blog, travelogues from which find their way into national and international newspapers, magazines and travel websites.

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