Smiling in West Timor

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May 1st 2015
Published: May 16th 2015
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The Timor smileThe Timor smileThe Timor smile

The chief of Boti village with his grandson
In Indonesia it is as if everyone smiles...and in West Timor laughs and waves. If you are in a car it is like being the Queen. As you drive pass everyone, yes literally everyone, who sees you are a Westerner, smile and wave and shout 'How are you, mister'. 'Leko-leko' I learnt to reply in the local Dawan ('I'm fine') as I smiled and waved back. A smile goes a long way when there is no common language.

The Timor smile. Think Batman's Joker on a good day. To travel Timor you have to have to accept that most locals will chew the ubiquitous betel nut. This leaves their teeth, lips and gums stained red (black in places) and the streets sprayed with red spit. It is completely a way of life in Central West Timor so if you can not adapt I would stick to Bali.

It seems each country or island has its own betel chewing culture. In West Timor 10,000INR/50p of betel chewing ingredients was the standard introductory gift for chiefs at remote villages. The ingredients are either fresh or dried betel nut (known locally as pinang and collected from palms), finely powdered lime and a pod from from the serih vine. If the sliced dried nut is used it is chewed and crushed along with a bitten off section of serih pod and then a splash of lime powder. Apparently the amount of lime mixed into the mouth is crucial. The lump of rough paste quickly turns red and is pushed into the cheek. One chief's porch had large bamboo tubes around its edge to catch the blood red voluminous spittle. Often it just hits the pavement. If the fresh nut is used they peel off strips of the green outer casing to add and give the paste 'body'.

Apparently the impact of betel chewing is akin to your morning coffee. It is addictive and creates a sense of euphoria as well as heightened awareness. Perhaps crucially it is also an appetite suppressant, very useful if there is not enough food to go round. One guide did explain that the price of rice in Indonesia had gone from 7,000/8,000 to 10,000/11,000INR/kg in the last year. In Flores we had observed the distrubution of government subsidised rice to needy families. The prevalence of betel chewing also means people smoke less often. So with Western sensibilities put to one side one focuses on the smiles which are everywhere.

We had flown to West Timor from Ende in Central Flores on schedule. We prebooked in with Edwin Lerrick at his Lavalon B&B/Cafe ( in Kupang as he came highly recommended from many sources. Edwin was a classic character: He had an opinion about everything especially Agoda and Indonesian politics. He knew all you needed to know about getting around West Timor. And he gave us a great double room (150,000INR). It was clean, ensuite, not that spacious and probably had one of the best views of any room we have stayed in along the sandy beach below. We are also happy to recommend his own fried chicken recipe of which he is very proud. As an added bonus he has good wifi which is not yet standard in Timor.

That evening Edwin pointed us in the direction of the Kepang night market just 150 metres along the street. It was lined with fresh fish and barbecues enhanced with nearby electric fans. We picked a large red snapper for 80,000INR/£4. Food always tasted better when it
Hand weaving at BotiHand weaving at BotiHand weaving at Boti

The pattern is specific to the area
is basted with a paint brush! Served straight up the halved fish was divine. The fresh juices, papaya for Jane and avocado for me, were made next door. Kepang is a University town and some locals knew enough English to ask us where we from.

We told Edwin we wanted to explore the interior and in a flash he had organised a guide. You can not find and in one case can not go to remote villages without them. 'I no longer recommend the guides I told Lonely Planet because they are now too expensive', he commented.

He gave us Jemri's phone number and had an assistant flag down a bemo to take us to where the buses headup the central highway.

'Call him when you are on the bus', he added.

So off we went. Jemri Saluk was an English teacher (+62 85253282332) and spoke good English (not necessarily a given in these parts). As the bus wound its way around the multitude of bends so characteristics of all Indonesian central highways we arranged to meet him at the Bahagia One hotel in So'E (pronounced So-Ee).

The ride
Our room in BotiOur room in BotiOur room in Boti

Not even a mobile phone signal
showed that Timor had its own character. It was much drier and less lush than Flores or Lombok. As we moved into the interior away from Kupang traditional houses roofed with dried grass or palm leaves became very common. Road side stalls sold green tangerines, bananas and large avocados. Occasionally there was a pouncetia bush with sprigs of bright red leaves (in Indonesian it is known as Cambodia flower). We have been travelling for so long in these parts we barely noticed the barefoot grey haired man dressed in a traditional sarong get on the bus holding a live chicken by its legs.

On arrival at So'E we sat down with Jemri and planned a four day itinerary: three on bikes and the last with a car. We met his wife Elder who also speaks good English and later his young daughter.

There was no time to lose. We set off, both of us riding pillion, for the isolated village of Boti 38km away leaving most of our kit in the Hotel. With 12km to go the road had completely degraded to rocks and gravel pitted in many places and passed up and down steep valleys and hills. The chief dictates that the village keeps all the old customs and refuses government support. They get around 300 visitors a year and ironically there was a tour group of seven when we arrived. It was a strange place. There was no electricity and our basic room was lit by a kerosine wicked lamp. It was like a living museum. The most cynical might refer to 'a zoo'. Boti remains strictly animist in its religious believes. Whilst respect for ancestors is wide spread it is typically coalesced with Christianity in Timor and other religions elsewhere in Indonesia.

We gave the chief his betel via an offering box and were served snacks (pieces of boiled cassava and bananas). They served a soup and rice with various side dishes for dinner. Jane did her best and I just didn't ask too many questions about ingredients. In the darkness it was soon time for bed. Jane got a single bed with a mosquito net which left me with a box frame covered in plastic. We both slept fine.

In the morning we toured the village and saw a hand weaving display. Some of the cotton they use to weave sarongs is grown locally and the plants were scattered around the houses. We over paid for a carving and then headed for the weekly market at Oinlasi. The roads on the return, including crossing a dry river, were no better. The market had everything locals would need: electronics, betel, livestock, fruit and vegetables. We passed a man carrying a small trussed pig for sale. We bought carvings instead.

The market was by a school and some seventeen year olds were keen to talk to us at their break time. Jemri helped with translation. One made a verbatim speech (ie he spoke the English well and did not know what it meant) about the upcoming Education Day and two gave a very good rendition of a One Direction song! We are used to being the centre of attention when no other tourists are around.

On the way back to So'E we stopped at the village of None (pronounced n-on-ee). This village is known for being the last head hunting village in West Timor. The chief is old and blind and his son along with Jemri's commentary showed us how they prepared for war. They had collected their last enemy head from the neighbouring kingdom in 1942. Preparation for a fighting trip involved animal slaughter to the ancestors, seeing if the chief's thumb touched a sacred post when holding a long stick and examining the contents of a chicken egg. If all the signs were good they headed off. If the signs were bad they left in a day and then checked again.

The village chief's wife was the local midwife. She showed us the soot filled traditional hut in which she has delivered hundreds of babies. These days, because the government wants to encourage births in hospitals they charge the village for the 'privilege' of giving birth at home. Apparently once the baby is born, the mother and child stay in the hut for 4 days, kept warm by a fire. The mother is then allowed to leave and re-enter whilst the baby stays put for 40 days. Her youngest granddaughter was the last to be born in the hut 18 months ago. As we conversed through Jemri the granddaughter was still being breast fed.

Our destination the next day was Fatumnasi on the high slope's of Gunung Mutis, West Timor's highest peak (2427m). I elected to drive myself on the motorbike. It was a great ride. The tarmac soon became patchy and often disappeared altogether. At one point we rode on a narrow path, next to where the road had been washed away, with a six foot drop or one side and a twenty foot drop on the other. Where there was no tarmac there were rocks and stones around trenches eroded by the rain. We climbed up the winding road to Fatumnasi at 1739 metres.

The chief, Mateos Anin, was there to meet us. He spoken some English especially when Jemri was not around. He has homestay huts around the main open sided covered meeting place. The chief invited us into his traditional hut. We were greeted by an open fire on which our lunch was cooking. Pigeons flew in and perched on shelves to benefit from the fire. Small boys competed with an array of dogs for a warm spot next to the fire. In this part of Timor the traditional house is used for living as well as ceremonies where as in other places it is used for either one or the other. The chief proudly showed us his vegetable garden and we picked a fat cucumber to serve at lunch.

We walk up and around the the forest on the slopes of Gunung Métis and it began to rain. When we returned the local Council head, the man with the political power in the area, was there visiting the chief, the man with 'ancestral' power. The rain made the return trip even more exciting. At the start the cloud was low and at one point visibility, with dusk rapidly approaching, was below 50 metres. Jemri and Jane got concerned when I fell behind at one point. Jemri came back to discovered I had run out of petrol. We quickly purchased a litre of petrol from a road side stall.

It was a long drive the next day so we opted for a car. It got us within 1500 metres of Temkessi, high on a hill approachable by a single dirt track. The village has nine traditional houses each looked after by a family from each of the nine ancestral villages in the local kingdom. It is over shadowed by the 'sacred' mountain from which flows the 'sacred' water at its base. The king lives elsewhere. People are only allowed into the houses at the time of a ceremony or celebration. The place was almost erie because there were few people around. Jemri explained that the house keepers were working in the fields. We were hosted by a young boy on his own who probably should have been at school. It seemed a lonely place to grow up. On Jemri's instruction he picked us Pomelo fruit. They are like a big grapefruit with pithy flesh that Jemri showed us how to eat with salt. There were fantastic views of the surrounding countryside with the rolling hills of jungle fading to the North coast of the island as we returned to the car.

We returned via Maubesi. Here we met another family chief who had an attractive spacious house. He was a wealth farmer who made his money trading cattle from Timor to Sulawesi. He had built a traditional house is his garden, like those at Temkessi, strictly for ceremonies. In this case we were allowed inside as he explained the traditions. Their sacred mountain is some kilometres away from where they bring rocks and water every few years. The last time was in 2011 and the process took several days. They have ceremonies in the house for key life events and for times such as a son moving away to university. It typically involves sacrificing a goat or cow or buffalo. They ask their ancestors blessing. They are also Christian although that seems very separate.

In Central Timor most families will have a modern house with a traditional house at the back where they often prefer to sleep particularly in winter, the dry season. Jemri mentioned that his father was saving grass for him for the roof so he can build his own traditional house. He could have made one with palm leaves but these are not so robust so he is waiting until he has enough grass. It takes a few years to collect. I recommended that he made it a homestay!

We were nearing the end of our trip so I gave Jemri the two mosquito nets we have been carrying from England. He was very glad to have them because he said his Father had been badgering him to get one for him.

Jemri left us in Kefamenanu (usually abbreviated to 'Kefa') in Central West Timor once we had found a hotel. There was not much choice and 300,000INR at Hotel Livero was the best deal. We are very happy to recommend Jemri's services (300,000INR per day, 150,000INR for each motorbike per day and 700,000 for the car and driver for the day). His Timor smile is as typical and as welcoming as the many you meet on the island.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Jane with the None Chief's wife, the midwifeJane with the None Chief's wife, the midwife
Jane with the None Chief's wife, the midwife

The children are born on the the bed behind them. The fire is on the right.
Dried corn hanging from the raftersDried corn hanging from the rafters
Dried corn hanging from the rafters

The chief's house at None
Mateos Anin in ceremonial gearMateos Anin in ceremonial gear
Mateos Anin in ceremonial gear

The stick contains a metre long sword and was handed down by his Granfather
A cuscus at the chief's house in MaubesiA cuscus at the chief's house in Maubesi
A cuscus at the chief's house in Maubesi

They are possums in Australia
The chief in his ceremonial house in MaubesiThe chief in his ceremonial house in Maubesi
The chief in his ceremonial house in Maubesi

The spears have been passed down from his ancestors.

6th October 2018

I miss it
Awesome write up. I had a similarly lovely experience with jemri and the tribesmen of Boti and None. Even though we got totally stuck in the Mud on the way back from Boti. In case youre curious about that story: I recommend anyone to do this tour if you already made it to this remote piece of land
1st June 2021

Hi from Lavalon Hostel Kupang West Timor
Hi thanks for writing about my Hostel all the best for you my WA +628123770533

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