By Diana McLeod                                                        2012

"“Stop! You can'’t go up there!"” The young woman approached me, a basket of vegetables in her hands.

"“No? Why not?”"

"It is forbidden.”"

I stopped climbing the steps to the raised grassy field that was right in the middle of the circle of huts. I had paid the admission price to see the village, so I couldn'’t understand why I couldn’'t go to its center. It held an interesting line of short standing stones and a larger megalithic stone structure at one end of the field, which I wanted to get a closer look at. Suddenly I felt discriminated against, as if I was considered “unclean” or something.

She read my face and understood. “"It is forbidden for everyone," she laughed. “"We also cannot go there, except once a year, at festival time. It is the sacred place.”"

That made me feel better, although I couldn’'t imagine why a village would have a taboo sacred spot in such an inconvenient location, right in the dead center of town.

"“But you can come to visit my house," she smiled.

I grinned back. "“I would love to! Your English is fabulous, by the way.”"

She was delighted with the compliment. Like most of the people in Flores, her people had been converted to Catholicism by eighteenth century Dutch Catholic missionaries. Luckily, these missionaries had learned from the cruel excesses of forced conversions in the New World, so they approached the local culture with more sensitivity than the Spaniards had. As a result, Catholicism and traditional animism still exist side by side in these communities, more or less in harmony with each other. This young woman was able to keep her village’'s traditional beliefs, festivals and sacred spaces, while absorbing the Catholic religion at the same time, along with its well run Western style educational system.

A few minutes later, I was inside the traditional house. It was charming! There was an open fire near the door, vented through a hole in the ceiling, and an older woman was grilling small fish for lunch. The family was gathering for the midday meal. The women were all wearing their traditional hand woven ikat sarongs, but the men were in Western dress. Toddlers and young children approached me with shy smiles.

The house was all done in the traditional primitive style. It was beautifully made, with bamboo flooring and a tall thatched roof. Everything was clean and tidy. The center of the home was open, with a tall ceiling. Comfortable little sleeping niches, curtained off for privacy, were in the back. Ladders led to a second level, with more sleeping niches and storage areas.

There were two central posts forming part of the doorway to the rear sleeping lofts, and near them were two small primitive statues. My young friend explained that when you are a guest, entering a traditional home in this area, you must pay your respects to these statues, since they represent the ancestors of the family. Spirits of the ancestors still supposedly reside inside the wooden effigies.

"“And how do I pay my respects to your ancestors?" ’ I asked.

"You spit on them. Go on, you must spit.”"

I had real trouble with this. The two little statues were hand carved and they rested in places of honor, obviously guarding the house. I suspected that my friend’s' words were mostly well rehearsed speeches. Her English was probably nowhere near as good as it sounded. If I told her that spitting on someone (or something) was the ultimate sign of disrespect in my culture, I’'m sure she wouldn'’t understand.

Everyone was waiting expectantly. I had been impatient with their taboos, but now I could not bring myself to seriously override my own! I did my best to spit at the statues with the minimum amount of moisture leaving my mouth.

The family was very unimpressed. They gave each other a look as if to say “these pathetic foreigners, they don'’t even know how to spit!” They would have been happier (and more honored) if I had left huge gobs of saliva running down their ancestors'’ faces!

I thanked the family profusely and left the house, musing about taboos and how ingrained they really are in every culture.

Several days later, we went to Bena, which is considered the best preserved historic village on the island of Flores. It deserves its reputation! Bena was perched on a spur of a classic conical volcano. The view at the end of the village was spectacular. A sheer cliff fell away into a deep jungle filled chasm, sloping downward to the distant sea. The village itself was a horseshoe shaped group of traditional thatched roof houses. In its center were ceremonial terraces with amazing megalithic stone structures. Standing stones supported massive horizontal slabs. Each clan in the village has its own stone altar, which is used for sacrificing water buffalo to honor the animistic gods as well as the spirits of their ancestors. Other stone structures may have marked ancient gravesites. All are places for humans to connect with the divine.

Other ritual structures were abundant in the town'’s center. The Ngada people have a pair of yin/yang male/female dual gender gods who balance the Universe. Both the male and the female have symbolic structures built for their worship. The male structure resembles a thatched umbrella (like ones that you might see at a beach resort) The female structure resembles a miniature hut, with just enough room for one or two women to huddle inside. When I saw the huts, I thought immediately of young women being taken here by their mothers or grandmothers, to be taught the rituals surrounding sex and childbirth. I imagined special rituals for fertility being performed here. I don’'t know if this is true, but it feels right to me.

Village life feels remarkably unchanged. Women are working here, weaving the special fabric for the long traditional Ikat dresses that they wear. The patterns are woven directly into the weave, not applied later, so the weaving is especially difficult. Complex patterns must be followed precisely in the smallest details. I can’'t imagine how they do this work in such poor light! There is no electricity here. I don’'t even see any kerosene lamps in the huts. (Or maybe they have nice new Coleman lanterns and flashlights that they hide during the day while the tourists are in town).

A pair of men return with fish caught in a nearby stream. Another man works to sharpen his machete. He is sitting on his porch, beside a rack of water buffalo skulls. These are trophies of animal sacrifices that his household has made to the gods over the years.

But there are signs of modernity if you know where to look for them. A cell phone emerges from someone’s' pocket. The school has a modern swingset in the playground. Near one of the megalithic stone altars are gravesites marked with ornate Catholic crosses, And my favorite example: a young man is visiting a village friend. He wears modern body piercing earplugs and his hair is sculpted into a dyed blue Mohawk. His “tribal” look has come full circle, I think. His piercings probably look quite similar to jewelry that his ancestors might have worn.

I wish my visit had been longer. I wish I had had time to make friends, and to share a meal around a traditional fireside. I can only imagine the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation in the traditional thatched houses of Bena.

Thanks for reading! Diana

Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive

and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!

I welcome your comments, suggestions (corrections!) My email is: email@tradewindsvt.com.