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Simple Wae Rebo way of life

This Indonesian village in Flores, 1,100m above sea level, offers vast spaces to roam, basic meals to enjoy and a chance to unplug

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Fabian Koh on 15 Oct 2017

The Straits Times

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There is no dramatic sunset. No bright orange orb descending behind a mountain, slowly shrinking into a semi-circle before disappearing.

 

Instead, everything slowly goes dimmer as the clouds roll in.

 

I am in the village of Wae Rebo in Flores, Indonesia, 1,100m above sea level, approximately seven times the height of Bukit Timah Hill.

 

Home to about 50 people, it sits in a valley, with mountains rising around it. There is a gentle breeze and the air is cool.

 

The breeze is appreciated. After all, the village is accessible only on foot via a three-hour, mostly uphill, trek through dense forest and many find themselves breathless from exhaustion at the end of it.

 

I am here for two days and a night, to visit this village far removed from the luxuries of urban life and marked by amazing architecture.

 

Wae Rebo is one of the many villages of the Manggarai people - an ethnic group found in western Flores - but it is the only one that has maintained an entire community of the traditional Mbaru Niang style of housing.

 

As I enter the village, the first thing I see areseven tall, brown conical houses sitting in a semicircle.

 

Meaning "drum houses" in the Manggaraian language, the party-hat-shaped homes are raised on stilts, with their walls and roofs supported by bamboo skeletons, their exteriors lined with the bark of palm trees.

 

On arrival, all visitors must attend a welcome ceremony led by the village chief, known as Mr Alex. In his 80s, the jolly man with a funky moustache has been the chief for 10 years.

 

In a 15-minute ceremony, he asks the spirits of the ancestors to keep us safe during our stay here and on our journey back. And just like that, with the blessings from the ancestors, he proclaimed us members of the Wae Rebo family.

 

The veneration of one's ancestors plays a big part in the lives of villagers here. The cemetery, where Wae Rebo's dead are buried, overlooks Wae Rebo from a hill slope.

 

The only rule visitors must abide by here is not to climb up the raised circular plot of grass in the exact centre of the village as it is a sacred ancestral altar.

 

The ceremonial house, the tallest Mbaru Niang in the village with an apex marked with a pair of buffalo horns, holds an offering dedicated to the ancestral spirits on its highest level. Buffaloes are sacred animals in Manggarai culture.

 

I am allowed to climb up to the second level of the ceremonial house. The only way up and down the 15m-tall, 15m-wide structure is a sturdy bamboo pole at its centre, with "steps" carved into it.

 

I clamber up and, glancing back down to the ground level, suddenly realise that I am quite high up.

 

The houses are much larger than they look. Each has five floors. The first is a kitchen and common area, while the rest are largely used to store items, foodstuff and seeds such as rice and corn yet to be planted.

 

The ceremonial house, used for village ceremonies and rituals, also holds gongs and drums for such events.

 

The conical design of the houses, says my guide Gusti, signifies the unity of the people since it starts from one common point and spreads outwards from there.

 

The same idea is replicated in the Spiderweb Padi Fields near Ruteng, about 25km north-east of Wae Rebo, where families segment circular plots of land, like a pizza, to share.

 

In most Manggarai villages these days, only the ceremonial houses are in the Mbaru Niang style. The other houses have modern adaptations including regular walls and roofs made of zinc that look more like pyramids than cones. These last longer and are easier to maintain, Gusti says.

 

The village has no mobile phone reception and is cut off from the Internet, an opportunity for a real digital detox. In the absence of social media, I find myself walking through the village grounds trying to pet chickens, studying the architectural brilliance of the houses and poking at coffee beans browning in the sun.

 

More than 80 per cent of the villagers in Wae Rebo are farmers. They grow coffee on the plots surrounding the village, harvesting the beans and processing them for sale in the markets in nearby towns.

 

In the past, the villagers also used to hunt wild pigs and rats in the surrounding forests and cooked them for meals. They stopped a few years back when Wae Rebo became a popular eco-tourism destination and more outsiders began passing through the forests.

 

Meals in Wae Rebo are basic, typically consisting of steamed rice, stir-fried vegetables, chicken and eggs.

 

As I sit down for a meal in the evening, I wonder if the fried chicken in front of me was the one I spied walking around the village. Or, perhaps, I was biting into that annoying rooster that kept crowing at the top of its lungs for no reason.

 

The children of Wae Rebo attend school in the village of Dintor at the foot of the mountain, returning only on weekends because the journey is long. Dintor is also where people head to for medical attention when they fall ill.

 

Life is uncomplicated in Wae Rebo, a place where things slow down and people take their time. It is a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, a peek into a simpler way of living.

 

It may not offer the luxuries of other city destinations, but what it gives travellers is a chance to unplug and get off the grid, completely.

 

And that, to me, is a true luxury.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.