Dismounting my motorbike and stepping into the village of Gurusina was like entering an alternative reality, a surreal experience. Children played with rubber tyres on the dry terraced ground in the central space of the village, while women and men sat around chatting on their front porches. An elderly woman was grinding some grains and the beats of pop music from a sound system could be heard from a few houses down.
I had hired a guide for the day, Johannes, a native Ngada person from the Bajawa area of Flores, who could speak the local language and was an expert on the culture and traditions of this region. We visited Bena village first, the first stop for many visitors who wish to see traditional Ngada villages.
Although I had heard that Bena was touristic, it was nothing compared to other tourist places I have visited in Indonesia. The village was peaceful as we entered, with no tourist hassle. Women sat on their verandas weaving the fabric that is one of the trademark handicrafts of this area.
Ngada Traditional Culture
We climbed the steep steps up to the first terraced level of the village and Johannes told me about Ngada culture. Although the Ngada people are Catholic, traditional beliefs play a big part in their lives.
The houses in a village are arranged in a square shape on terraced land completely cleared of vegetation. The space in the centre of the square is used for ceremonies and gatherings. Wooden structures are built by each clan, called ngadhu and bhaga. The construction of a ngadhu is in itself a special event, with auspicious items buried in the foundations of the structure, including a live chicken.
The ngadhu is shaped like a large wooden thatched parasol, the trunk of which features intricate wooden carvings which related to the number of generations of the clan represented. The stone base is used for buffalo sacrifice, and when we were in Bena the sticky blood from a very recent sacrifice, with its putrid smell, was attracting flies. The bhaga is in the form of a miniature Ngada house.
The Ngada are a matrilineal people so the houses are passed from mother to daughter. Some of the thatched rooftops had little model people or houses perched on top of the highest point; I was told that this signifies the house of the leader or highest generation of a clan, with other clan members on either side.
Bena village is 900 years old, and from the back of the village you can look out across the hills and mountains to the ocean. I could see other Ngada villages dotted across the green landscape, identifiable as small brown areas surrounded by green.
Leaving Bena, I made a small Rp. 5000 donation and signed the visitors’ book. We headed off to our next stop, Gurusina village. This village is less frequently visited by tourists, and we found the residents to be friendlier. We perambulated around the village, climbing down the very steep steps of the terraced ground.
Gurusina is not as old as Bena, having moved to this site some 200 years ago, when residents believed the original site, on a steep mountain side, would be threatened by earthquakes. We chatted to the current residents about their lives, and I was interested that although they live in traditional houses, with a traditional social structure and beliefs, their children do go to school nearby. With the recent welcome installation of electricity, there are televisions and sound systems in the village, as well as, of course, lighting.
A traditional Ngada house
I was pleased to be able to ask about the traditional houses with their characteristic wooden frames and thatched roofs, and one of the villagers kindly let me see inside his house.
It turns out that although modern tools such as chainsaws are now used to build Ngada houses, traditional rules are still adhered to. For example, the grain of the horizontal wooden beams must point clockwise round the house. Around the door of the house the wood is carved with intricate designs, all with their own significance, for example a butterfly might be carved, symbolising something that is difficult to catch.
The roofs of Ngada houses are thatched in a distinctive shape with reeds from the area. A house might last around thirty years before needing to be rebuilt.
Inside the house is one large room, with a corner used as the kitchen area and other parts of the rooms for sleeping. Also leading off the outside veranda are side rooms on either side of the main room. These are outside the square structure of the house.
A Contented Traditional Lifestyle
When I had visited the Batak region of North Sumatra last year I was told that the Batak people were no longer able to build traditional Batak houses; the knowledge had been lost, and anyway, most people wanted to live in a modern house and moved out of the traditional longhouses as soon as they could afford it. Here in Ngada Flores, however, it was a different story. People I spoke to in Gurusina village seemed to genuinely enjoy their lifestyle, without yearning for a modern house. New houses are built in Ngada style all the time, and they have integrated some elements of modern technology, such as the use of chainsaws, into the traditional building methods.
How to See the Ngada Region
There are many Ngada villages arranged in this traditional style across the area around Mount Inerie. As well as visiting for a few hours, it is possible to stay the night in some villages. There are even villages that are inaccessible by road and must be reached by trekking through the forest. Most villages have a visitors’ book which you should sign and it is normal to leave a small donation of around Rp. 5,000 – 10,000.
My guide, Johannes, was extremely knowledgeable, himself an ethnic Ngada who spent his childhood in a traditional house. He also acted as my interpreter for some conversations, because although I speak fluent Indonesian, not all the Ngada people speak Indonesian. Many older people and children I met, as in many parts of Indonesia, only spoke their ethnic language. Johannes translated for me.
Taking a guide enabled me to visit more places within a shorter time and to take steep, bendy roads that I may not have braved alone. Johannes was excellent and I recommend contacting him if you would like to explore the Ngada region. He can also arrange tours throughout the island of Flores. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] and by telephone on +62 (0)81 353 061310.