Culture in Flores

Made up of 17,000 or so islands, some 6000 of them inhabited and each with its own distinct identity, Indonesia is all about ‘unity in diversity’. And Flores is perhaps one of the most unique –most Indonesian people are Muslim, but Flores is one of the only islands where the majority of the population is Catholic. This stems from the Portuguese colonists, traders and missionaries who began arriving in the 16th century, and gave the island its name for the vivid red-orange colours of the trees on the eastern side of the island.
The population is around 85% Catholic, but many still also hold Islamic and animist beliefs. On top of that, between different tribes and communities there are many distinct languages spoken and cultural traits. Churches sit alongside megalithic stones, ancestral shrines and houses crowned with buffalo horns. In Ngada communities for instance, if a person dies prematurely or unexpectedly then it is believed to be the result of evil spirits that must be chased out. So while the deceased might receive a Catholic burial service, the village ancestors must also be appeased with a ritual animal sacrifice.

Rituals and ceremonies play a strong part in culture here, offerings are used to placate or thank spirits, ancestor worship, and maintaining balance in the circle of life between light and dark, sun and moon, good and evil. In locations such as Ruteng or Labuan Bajo you might witness a bloody Warrior (whip) dance, as young men violently demonstrate their virility.

Throughout your Flores holiday you’ll stay in small, locally run guesthouses, and depending on the operator, perhaps in a series of homestays in family houses. You’ll eat at locally owned warungs (restaurants) wherever possible, perhaps watch a demonstration of ikat weaving, learn how to plant rice or tap palm juice, and generally be immersed in a culture that has continued practically unchanged for centuries.

When you visit villages you’ll see people simply going about their daily business. Perhaps the occasional old lady weaving ikat (a tie-dyed cloth used for clothing and rituals) for sale, but that’s about as far as it goes in terms of ‘selling the culture’ to tourists. For this reason the importance of local guides cannot be overstated. They will introduce you to people, perhaps enabling you to take a peek into their houses, and interpret any questions either you or the residents may have for each other. They’ll tell you when and where it’s okay to take photographs, explain traditional rituals and farming practices, help you pick out food in markets or understand the layout of sacred cemeteries. They’re invaluable.

Ruteng

A major centre for ikat handicrafts, Ruteng is surrounded by paddy fields arranged in a unique ‘spider web’ pattern, a residue of communal agricultural practices. You might trek through the rice terraces between villages, lunching at a Manggarai family home, or, depending on when you’re there, watching a traditional whip fight (be warned, it can get pretty violent).

Maumeres and Sikka

Maumeres is the largest city on Flores and capital of the Sikka Regency. ‘Just outside the city are small, Portuguese-influenced fishing villages, home to Bugis and Bajo people who are known for the skill of their ikat weaving and their picturesque stilt huts. In hilltop Dokar you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the bay, and perhaps watch demonstrations of traditional dance and weaving.

Bajawa

The spiritual heartland of the Ngada people, which comprises five tribal groups that each has its own distinct customs, language and traditional form of dress, the Bajawa region is a popular stop on Flores cultural holidays. Women pile their hair on their heads and chew betel nuts that stain their lips red, offering friendly greetings as you walk between villages such as Bena and Luba with a local guide. You’ll see rows of stilt houses with steep thatched roofs, and learn how animist beliefs sit alongside Catholic, images of Christ and Mary alongside pig jaws and buffalo horns (buffalo are commonly used as dowries or in ritual sacrifices).

Wae Rebo

Only reachable by a three-hour hike up from the lowlands, Wae Rebo sits within the cloud forest and is notable for its cone-shaped, five-storey houses built of bamboo, wood and grass. Some trips see you stay over in a house built for visitors, which allows you to fully explore the village, and its picturesque landscape of rice fields and coffee plantations.
Megan Grant from specialist operator Audley Travel on culture in Flores:

Culture clash

“All Indonesian islands feel very different in their own ways. What makes Flores unique is it’s the only one that’s Catholic, so you have this fascinating clash of cultures with the traditional animism beliefs. It’s also noticeably poorer than many other Indonesian islands, and the landscapes are very dramatic with less rainforest cover.”

Village visits

“Visiting the Bajawa villages such as Luba and Bena feels very natural – you’re looking around people’s homes while for the most part they’re just going about their daily lives. Maybe a few old ladies are weaving handicrafts for sale, that’s about it. People are very excited and happy to see visitors, not because they see money in it, purely because they’re surprised and pleased to see you. Tours to these villages are quite short so they don’t feel too voyeuristic. And they’re a really interesting insight into the culture – for example the dowry system is still in place here, with buffaloes exchanged, so the number of buffalo horns above a house indicates the family’s wealth.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Paul Arps] [Intro: Fahim Fadz.] [Ruteng: Paul Arps] [Bajawa: Paul Arps] [Megan Grant advice: Paul Arps]
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