Twice Travelled Trip

I've been back two weeks from my jaunt through south east Asia. Somewhat steadier on my feet than I was, though I still can't unblock my ears. This was no pleasure trip ... this was work: I was looking for the concluding section of the book I've been writing this year, which has the same (working) title as this weblog. Strange thing to do, in a way, since I deliberately made minimal preparations and so had very little idea what I might encounter. I did however have a mental checklist of things I hoped I might find, questions I might be able to answer, places I might get to see. From that point of view it was a success; from the serendipitous point of view too: there was enough of the unexpected, the bizarre and the moving to keep me interested, nay, fascinated. Now I'm writing it all down, or all that I think is worth relating, mentally travelling again the route I took physically just a short time ago. And yet it all seems oddly distant, as if it happened in another time from that I live in now.

The coincidence which pleased me most was the announcement of the discovery of little people on Flores just as I was about to go there: a friend emailed me in Bali with the news. But the counter-chorus of sceptics has already begun. An eminent Indonesian archaeologist is quoted in today's paper as saying he believes the skeletons may be those of modern humans. Well, they could be; Adam, the anthropologist I met on the flight from Labuanbajo to Denpasar, hinted as much when he said the local people in that part of Flores are also very small. It is peculiar though, the way 'science', which has spent so long insisting upon the irrationality of world-wide beliefs in little people, is so quick to claim credit for their (re)discovery when it happens. Why didn't they believe us? Because there was no proof, of course. But ... proof? What is that?


Carpet Moths

Earlier today I went down to the laundry under the house to put a load of washing on and noticed, clinging to the door jamb, a big triangular carpet moth with intricate patterns on its wings, including a deep red central spot either side. Nothing unusual there ... except this: I first noticed one of these moths at a flat I moved into in Glebe in 1983; it was on a painting a friend had given me which was hanging in my study. What is unusual is that, every year about this time, at every one of the many places I have lived in the twenty odd years since then, one of these moths has appeared, as if, somehow, I carry the seed of it with me as I go. Does it live in my luggage? My papers? My soul? I am about to move again although I do not yet know where to: will the moth, or its descendants, accompany me there? I'm not exactly sure why, but I hope so.


A Town Called Alas

On Sumbawa there is a town called Alas. We passed through it in the dead of night, the night before the US election, the night of November the 1st, as it was in that part of the world. Everyone was awake, all the lights were on, the greeny-blue, low wattage lights they use in that part of the world. Every house had a TV set on also, brighter than the lights in the room, showing soap operas, dreamy laid-back music videos, advertisements for things the people watching or not watching would never be able to buy, interspersed with Muslim hymns and sermons and rants. The people were awake not because of the US election but because it was Ramadam and they had spent the day fasting and sleeping or fasting and working and were now spending the night eating and talking or not eating and not talking. All the young men with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting outside watching the traffic (except there is no traffic apart from the occasional bus like ours roaring through the night), playing guitars, or chess, talking and not talking, waiting. For what? Alas, like every other town we passed on that strange hot night, under the yellow moon, a gibbous moon, was a town of hovels with, every now and then, a splendid, no, resplendent mosque, where the light was not that subaqueous greeny-blue but bright white, a tiled, clean, well-lighted place where white-robed men and women sat and talked or didn't talk, sang or did not sing, with, in almost every case, a white curtain made of sheets pinned or sewn together slung across the space to separate, I thought, the men from the women or perhaps the children from the adults ... the hovels explained the mosques, or the mosques explained the hovels, I couldn't decide which it was, but in that part of the world it is understood that a mosque will be made available if there are ten believers who want one, and some towns, the larger ones, really do seem to have a mosque for every ten hovels. But not Alas. Alas was just a small town, a few hovels, one mosque, and still that crowd of young men sitting outside on the stoops in the hot night with or without their guitars, waiting. Small children, dressed in rags, ran after the bus as we passed down the dusty single main street of Alas, yelling out in shrill high voices, boys and girls but mostly boys, dropping behind as we turned the corner and changed down and headed further east, where the road ran out of town and along a low shore with palms and the shadows of islands further out, behind which the yellow moon, the swollen moon, rose up in the brown sky. Alas.


On Flores

Coincidentally, I was on my way to Flores when the announcement was made of the hominid remains, called Homo floresiensis, found at Liang Bua. There's, of course, a heap of information out there on the web about this, but I have a few things to add which come from local knowledge, or local gossip. The site is near Ruteng, a town in western Flores, about four or five hours by bus from where I stayed at Labuanbajo, on the extreme western end of the island. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Liang Bua because I couldn't face another bus journey, having already crossed Lombok and Sumbawa in this manner in the previous few days; besides, I didn't find out where the site was until I was leaving the island, by plane - the man sitting next to me, Adam, who was from Ruteng, told me.

However, while at Labuanbajo, I did visit another cave where, the guide, Sebastian, told me a Dutch pastor by the name of van Houven had unearthed a human skeleton in 1945; this, too, was of a small person and these remains are now in the museum at Maumere on Flores. This cave affected me strangely. We climbed down into it by ladder then crawled through a passage in the limestone, past great thick stalagmites and stalagtites, into a vast interior space, quite dark, yet pierced from above by the roots of banyan trees running down the walls and across the floor like electrical cables or water pipes. As I stood up in here, breathing the dry, faintly ammoniac air, I felt a strange dizziness or vertigo. There was a deep humming sound resonating through the cavern, from the bees which made their hives high up on the rocks in the blinding sunlight outside. Where did they find the human? I asked Sebastian. Just there, he said, pointing to a nearby rock floor. Later he showed me a complete turtle, fossilised, upside down, in the roof of the next cave; and a fish, likewise turned to stone, in a wall.

According to Adam, a trained anthropologist, van Houven had also worked at Liang Bua ... but I have not yet been able to find out more about this man who was, incidentally, a Catholic not a protestant, because the Dutch sent only Catholics to Flores, where Portuguese Dominicans had been before, while reserving nearby Sumba and western Timor for the protestants. Adam also told me that the local Manggarai people who live in villages near the site of the find are renowned for their tiny stature. How big? I asked. He held his hand out into the aisle of the plane, about a metre and half from the floor. There was a sense in his conversation of, not exactly scepticism, but rather a kind of amusement that the whole world was talking of something that he and others already knew a bit about. I asked him if he'd heard that the Dutch in the 17th century gathered reports of little people living on Flores, which they dismissed as folktales. He smiled. The Dutch, he explained, did not really come to rule Flores until the early 20th century.

The traditional houses of the Manggarai people are conical and arranged in concentric circles around a round, walled, sacrificial arena. Their rice paddies, too, are round, divided up in sections like a spider's web, with each clan receiving a slice - amazing to look at. They wear black sarongs, breed droopy stomached black-haired pigs and beautiful miniature horses. Two brothers, they say, came out of the west to found their kingdoms; their original houses have turned to stone. In a Manggarai village two houses face the altar stone: the one on the right is the Mbaru Gendrang, the chief’s, all ceremonies begin here, and here the open-ended gendrang drums are hung; the one opposite is the Mbaru Tambur, where the two skinned tambur drums are hung. Here ceremonies end.