Born on white sand – Saleo Homestay in Raja Ampat

 Raja Ampat – one of the last paradises on the peak of the bird head shaped Papua island, still quite undiscovered by tourists. The archipelago has been kept behind a veil of exclusiveness, meaning the most of the visitors to the island arrive by planes and are then directly taken to the luxury boats, in which they then sail a week or two passing the scattered islands sunk into the greenery. The most mystical dimension is certainly under water, thus most of the time the tourists spend when on Raja Ampat is spent on diving tours that last for days or for weeks. But still, should you do some research you could find a bit more budget friendly way to the magic of Raja Ampat.

Every afternoon there are ships departing from Sorong that besides hundreds of locals take for extra 15 euros some tourists aboard. What is more, in Raja Ampat there’s one (and at the moment of writing, really only one!) bed and breakfast homestay, where you can stay for 10 euros a night. Compared with the 50 euro ride on a speed-boat or at least 100 euros for a day in a luxury boat and with some random hotel rooms that cost at least 35 euros, the before mentioned options seem quite edible even for low-budget travellers.

In the shade of the palm trees, there’s a super sweet shelter Saleo Homestay hiding itself. It’s about a 10-minute boat ride away from Waiwo, the centre of Raja Ampat, or you can also reach it by a motorbike if you care to take a half an hour ride along the muddy mountain roads.  In Saleo I was welcomed by a smugly grandfather, his calm and nice son with his lovely wife and by their little daughter Aini, who was 2 at the time of visiting. The characteristic girl was born onto white sand and has grown up in a coconut grove, running around and chasing after chickens and geese. And she’s the happiest in water. Cristal clear sea water is like nectar for her. She often goes with his father to the sea, and together at the sunset they catch a fish or two for supper. Everything served in Saleo comes directly from water, fresh gourmet, cooked in the simplest conditions, simply served.

Even if I’d get to spend a couple of days in a local resort, I still find life in its simplicity more enjoyable, in its wildness, here in Saleo, close to a local family, knowing that what you’ve eaten today has come about a few hundred meters away, from the fall of the coral reef, knowing that to take a shower in the gleam of the stars you’d only need to pump water from the well, knowing that little Aini is sitting in her bath and singing a candid tune, and knowing that you must be on Kurre Kurre Island.

The last paradise on earth – Raja Ampat, too much

The first time I heard anything about Raja Ampat islands was in the very same salon of Ayu. Ayu even grinned when she heard me praising the beautiful beaches of Papua, meaning those that I’d seen here around the corner in Sorong.

“What! What we have here is nothing – you need to go to Raja Ampat, for the weekend, ayo!”

Namely, near the city I’m doing my fieldwork with warias the last paradise on earth arises from the sea. Raja Ampat – a royal quartet of enchanting tropical islands, where after seeing the slogan “the last paradise on earth” tourists, ornithologists and divers flock from around the richest world. 

 Of course this made the situation a bit more complicated for me and Minna, because we’re no tourists nor bird watchers, whose wallets are what all the logistics of Raja Ampat has been meant for. But certainly we wouldn’t say no to a session into the magic of the  underwater world.

One night in Sorong we paid a visit to a wedding ceremony my host waria had organized. And just like that a dream I’d sent to the universe came true, the girl sitting next to me was from Raja Ampat. A few days later we’re on her family’s speed boat and scurrying towards the 1500 unknown coral islands. We had landed into the most obscure sounds. These were the sounds of a grown nature, in which a incontinent play of colours and freejazz of awkward birds were interwoven.

As Indonesian government had violated the rights of Papuans for ages, yet at the same time Papua has the highest number of different races in the country, then in recent years Papuans have been nicely spoilt, so that all kind of calls for fights for independence could be gently petted down. For example, Papuans connected with the city government get a rather decent salary. One of the many privileges available brought many young families to the capital of Raja Ampat (which actually is a little village), they were given a house and an office job in the city administration. All those fast investments into the local infrastructure seem rather weird, but I hold the details for now. There, in the house that had been the government’s gift, in the hypnotizing bird song gourmet, we found ourselves a place to stay for a few nights.

In the morning we went to explore the last paradise on earth. We found kilometers of warm glittering sea water, hundreds of green islands that rose from the sea like cakes, sharks and rays dashing in the sea bed, a giant fallos made of stone planted in a cave, the most beautiful swimming experience (I really cried), a meter long fish stuck on a fishhook that we could later grill, and all those thousands of colourful fish between the acidy corals on the other side of my snorkelling mask. It was all too much, having come from dusty citylife, with a broken mind, social depression hidden behind the night’s mask, with too many tears recorded on my sound recorder I use for interviews. It all was suddenly too much, there was too much beauty, too much real will of life, too much real god, nature, too much Alice, too much wonderland.

The island of Doom

“Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom….” the guys at the harbor were shouting. And it’s not that somebody is doomed or this is the doomsday or there’s some great doom rock gig around the corner (wishful thinking, eh), but indeed – there’s a small island just some 20-minutes boat ride from Sorong and it’s called DOOM.

So the guys shouting “Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom….” are just trying to find people that would land in their boat and take a ride to this spooky doomed island.

Doom is the island with Dutch heritage. You can walk around the circular island within an hour – it’s just 4,5km long – and take a look at some dutch influence in architecture and in city planning. It used to be the center of their settlement in West Papua, at the top of the so-called Bird’s Head peninsula, in early 1900s and it played an important economic role for Chinese settlers. Although I remember hearing the stories from the locals that the island used to have a prison, after which it was called Doom, I  have also read that the island known as Dum means that the island is full of fruit in Malamooi tribes.

We also met an older brother of my friend in Sorong, who has lived in Doom his entire life of around 60 years. What intrigued me was the way he explained the island’s lost wonders: “The Indonesians! Since the Indonesians came everything has changed – here we used to have crystal clear water with bright white sand, but now it’s just an extension of Sorong here.” Well, after all, the island still seemed exotic for my eyes, but I could have only imagined the picture he was trying to paint for us from his childhood memories preceding the year of 1969 when Dutch New Guinea was annexed and it became known as West Irian, later Irian Jaya.

I went there to meet a Papuan waria whose family lives on the island. There, sadly, she could never dress up nor express her gender identity, but when she leaves the island for a weekend in Sorong, or travels to other cities such as Jayapura, she feels free to open herself up and enjoy the fruits of life as a waria.  But in front of her local community, she remains this androgynous weird boy, leading double lives and trying to cope with it.

Death around us

“You have to eat, you can’t go without!” they told us again, and made us sit down again and eat. Whatever it was, we had to eat. “There is so much death around us, if you don’t eat, an accident might happen!”

Toraja, Sulawesi

To believe it or not, but of course I ate. I ate even the strangest food we were sharing, even such that you cannot bite but you just have to swallow the semi-transparent thing down. Having done that, they catch a chicken in the garden. “This is for dinner.” Earlier that day there was a phone call for our mom in the house were we were staying, that her once had passed away. Yeah, the death was certainly around. We had already been to so many funerals, and saw so many lives taken, one more bloody than the other. But there was also something magical in the air, in these mantras, and under this bright-starred night or humid and hot daytime. There was sweat and rain in the air, mud and blood everywhere. So the men are singing their mantras in the language of Toraja, unknown for me, but it definitely sings about eternal things, such as the circle of life and the worlds beyond. The life does not stop here with the moment we have named a death, but there’s so much more life out there. It’s in the trees, in the rocks, in the places untouched by human far away. Puang Matua, the creator is behind all that. There is much more than bare life and death and flesh and blood. There is much more than killing of thousands of animals, that definitely don’t deserve it.

People are often buried in the caves, inside the rock. And there are always guards outside, keeping everything in peace, being there for a reason. This is just beautiful who much the respect and love their ancestors, whose deal actually doesn’t matter much anymore, but they still do it, irrationally, in belief.

Little babies who die when they are still so little, under a year – they are buried inside of the big trees. This tree was so powerful, that it almost knocked me down emotionally. 

Flesh and blood, earth and divine: game of status in Toraja

It is midsummer. People in many parts of the world, most likely where I am from, eat a lot of meat now. Here’s a story from another meat fest in Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia. We drove off on motorbikes up to the mountains to the world, which doesn’t know the price of the respect for their ancestors. This is proud Toraja, above the green hills in Central Sulawesi, where life and death get another meaning.  Rumors that right now there should be the largest ceremonies of the years had reached me already earlier. They said there’s gonna be 500 buffalos sacrifices, not just 5 or 50, but as many as 500 oxen, plus thousands of pigs. After arrival I couldn’t question these numbers. There was three big funerals going on in the area, one more ambitious than the other. Yes, all these hundreds of oxen, plus thousands of pigs are to be killed for the glory off dead, in order to ensure a smooth movement to the next world – to the world of spirits. Here when the body gets quiet by death, it doesn’t actually mean the death in our sense. People can keep the body in their house for about one year or so, treating it almost as if he was still alive.  But when the family doesn’t organize such funeral, the dead will be dangling somewhere around the village, and probably merge into one gang with all the ghosts that make up Indonesian everyday experience. The entire site of the funeral service is slightly hilly because of the piles of the pigs laying down in the mud, in pain of the heat. There’s a team of men around them, one stating loud in the microphone who has brought the pig here, another one is marking the pig with spray color. Again and again there are three-four men entering, a shouting pig on their shoulder, lips already foamy. Again and again some of them move a step away and there’s a knife thrusting into the throat of a pig, followed by intolerable squealing. Blood splashes around, the butcher pushes the vein with his toe. Then someone grabs a flamethrower and burns the pig into crispy pork. The bloody action is passed by a column of beautiful ladies with bleached faces and cherry red lips. I hear the trance-lifting mantras of Toraja. This here is some other world, which has evolved so bizarrely on this island with strange shape somewhere in the mountains. The buffalo-fetish of the community is also looking back to us from the houses of Toraja, shaped as if they were ships and topped with a head of a bull and many horns of sacrificed buffalos hanging over the doorway. The more horns hanging – the higher the social status of the household.

“And who was that woman?” I asked after hearing more about the market price of buffalos.

“The dead? Oh, she was a housewife. “

The next burial is particularly spectacular. There are tens of people with tens of buffalos in the huge square surrounded by thousands of spectators. At the same time, hundreds of men try to push the shell of the corpse to the top floor – in order to be closer to the natural world. Later I hear from kepala adat (cultural head of of the community, in other words, the most important man in region), that these white oxen cost about 350 million rupees each (about 35,000 euros!) There are some 24 of those, in addition to the normal buffalos, which cost around 20-40 million each. “We can estimate that the total financial budget for this ceremony can reach about 40-50 billion rupees. But nevertheless, this amount does not express how much the people of Toraja respect their ancestors, “said the man of importance. Namely, the white bull is especially considered a sacred animal, whose cost can be ten times more expensive than of usual bulls.

Why is that? Mostly the locals justified the high cost, because a white bull is just a rare occurrence. So the owners of the white buffalos stand proudly next to their animal, until it will be killed a couple of days later. I also confirmed, that there is no difference in the flavor of the meat. For this special occasion there are lots of media representatives around and every other visitor reaches out a hand with a smartphone to hit some shots of this bloody action or pose with a bule-buffalo, (or with me, as I’m also a bule – white person- here). Thousands of eyes recognize the sacrifice of the next bull – an arc of blood erupting from the throat cut wide open and the animal staggers between the worlds of the living and the dead for several minutes. Ugly. The dead used to work as a school teacher. She raised up 12 children.

In the next funeral there’s a family of our local friend, whose family automatically became our generous host. Thousands of people have gathered here, so the funeral place is surrounded by kilometers of deadlock. Before the comménce of the fierce bullfight, the men are singing mantras, holding their hands together in a circle. It even creates a certain sense of majesty. “At least once a year we gather together in such a funeral, there’s certainly someone who passes away every year,” says our friend’s cousin. “This time I brought one buffalo. But anyway, oh well, this is such a status game,” she laughed. “Everything here is publicly announced, who brought how many buffalos, all written down!”

After a few days in the funeral in Toraja, where according to the custom, I tried a bit of buffalo meat, I did not want to eat a single bite of meat for several months. The experience of Toraja can be a challenge for a fan of vegetarianism in principle. Though I must admit I was enjoying it in a sense I like blood and human perversion for example in the films of Jodorovsky or the revenge of inBOIL to iDeath in Brautigan’s “In Watermelon Sugar”.

“Oh, stress!” – an anthropologists and a transgenders struggle for existence in front of the police and the bureaucracy

We had long planned a trip to Makassar next morning, so we tried diligently to reach Segeri village by seven o’clock in the morning. With some delay we were ready waiting by the roadside. But somehow, Eka wanted us to meet her in her salon.  There was something important she needed to talk to us. Smelled bad. 

As we arrived, Eka blew up large foams. The question was whether I had a letter to confirm that I am here to do my research. Apparently last night she had been harassed by the police until one o’clock. Because of me, because of what I was doing here.

The police had actually already asked twice for my papers, visa and explanation for my research, but the truth was also that before leaving Java I didn’t know exactly which village I will be based in. Then of course I did not have such a letter. Eka, however, strongly insisted that I would obtain the letter. Initially I was trying to find some more flexible ways, because I honestly just did not want to cause my partner organization Gaya Nusantara from Surabaya any unnecessary burden. Obviously this is another case of bureaucracy, because why on earth I possibly could not be here for a week and visit some priests as a so-called normal person?!

But here in Sulawesi, as I understood now from Eka, it is required to notify the police twice within every 24 hours, where I am and what I do. They want to know my reasons for being here, and foreigners are not allowed to stay at the local people. Although I had talked to the police already twice, they still want the official confirmation of my existence.

Based on my previous experiences in Russia and other places of power, I already knew that this must be the local face of the so-called nasty little power. This little power has to create their legitimacy themselves, it has to require their power, and thus it often becomes nasty.

Big mosque of Segeri village

Eka was eating fast and furious, saying out load, that she do not agree to give me an interview, if I do not have such a letter. She provocatively walked to the kitchen, and continued eating there. She said she’s afraid. Also she claimed that the police had already took 200,000 rp from her after hours of negotiating last night. She said that to me, however, from the ends of her lips only when we were alone in the room, so, be cursed my distrust, but I’m not completely sure that this was not one of her white lies. I asked, why did she do that, after all, the police do not have any legal grounds to request the money! Eka shrugged. She’s afraid.

And I can understand her. I am pretty sure that Eka (and I) were harassed because of her non-confirming gender identity. And I am pretty sure that Eka was so resolute with me and with the police, because of the very same reason.

Being a sinner in the eyes of Allah, and marginalized anyway, she does everything possible to keep herself clean and to become an exemplary citizen who has good relationships with the police, the bureaucracy and all the aunties of the village.

Eka cries and raves, then demands me to eat with her, although I have absolutely no appetite after all this chaos early in the morning. She insists the number of my supervisor, and calls him. I was already preparing the letter, as we got teared in a car, because now, all of a sudden, we really need to rush to Makassar. Rush to the wedding.

Whose wedding?

No matter!

“Oh, stress!” Eka cries.

Colors of the daily village life: haunted house and love affairs

Ma’ruf is a sweet dwarf with two humps. He seems to have a very peaceful mindset, and  he talks very clear Indonesian. He has a master’s degree in Islamic economics and occasionally he likes to play out load some Islamic prayers on his self-phone.

Me and Ma’ruf with excellent pomelos

The first time I saw him doing this, we were just comparing the tax systems of Estonia and Indonesia. And then he lets the phone sing in Arabic. I asked whether the phone was ringing because someone’s calling.

“No, it’s just music. Sometimes when I feel that I want to think of God, I’ll play it,” he said. I repeat, we were just talking about economic matters and there were dozens of children of the village playing around us. The man with two humps laughs craftily.

Ma’ruf put me and Minna sleep in an empty house. There were some old computers of about ten lying around, a few dusty furniture items, and one king-size bed. In one corner of the house there was a hole sized of few feet. The house rather reminded me an attic than a home, but since the whole abandoned house was ours, I liked it very much. I assumed the house must be haunted, but Ma’ruf and his wife both claimed that there were no ghosts. I had to believe them. At four o’clock in the morning we were waken up by load Islamic prayers coming from next doors’ mosque.

After visiting one bissu, we arrived back to the ghostly house around midnight.  It was pitch black out there and all the doors were locked. In what sense Ma’ruf doesn’t have his house keys?! It all smelled strange. Small Ma’ruf tried to knock on the window though, until someone finally came out of the house and we got the keys to our haunted house. But when that’s the case, where does Ma’ruf sleep himself?

“I do not sleep in this house, have not slept here for a long time,” he says shy. It turned out that Ma’ruf actually lives in the ghost house, or he crashes near the highway, where he has an internet cafe. Later it came out that he’s still in love with another women, with whom he had an affair before marrying his current wife. Also, it was his sister Eka who put him together with his current wife, they barely knew each other on the wedding day! And now the wife doesn’t get pregnant for already 8 years, and Ma’ruf still secretly meets his girlfriend from the university times. Oh, rumors of the village life.

Soon he asked if he can spend the night here. Why, here’s just one bed?

“Oh yes, one bed, three people.”

I starte to laugh, these things do not work that way. Especially according to the norms in Indonesia.

“But how is it in your country?”

“Also, not that way.”

Oh well, he’s a character, this Ma’ruf, sweet little dwarf.