I will start the Sumba story with some geography. Sumba belongs to the group of Little Sunds Islands located northwest of Australia towards Bali and Java. The East Nusa Tenggara Province is the southernmost in Indonesia. It has about seven million inhabitants. Sumba itself is close to a million.
The capital is Waingapu and the airport is right outside it. The second one is located in Tambolaka. Particularly interesting information is that in this part of Indonesia, Christianity is declaratively the most widespread religion, which is visible through a huge number of small churches. The islands of Komodo and Flores are located in the north and Timor and Australia in the east. The first colonizers were the Portuguese (1522) and very soon after them, the Dutch and the Jesuits who founded their mission in 1866. Despite the spreading of Christianity, today most people still worship and obide to tradition and local customs. At that time the main exploitation good was sandalwood.
One of those customs is Pasola. Occasionally a deadly game is played by dozens of horsemen throwing wooden spears one at the other while trotting by. It is played in the honour of good harvest and the goal of the game is to soak the ground with blood of the rider and occasionally horses to give sacrifice to the land. Today Pasola in its original form is played less frequently, and the sacrifice is made using the blood of pigs and poultry. The game used to often grow into a real war between the villages. Today the game is calmer since tourists come, but police are still present just in case. The feast lasts for four weeks in February and March, depending on the harvest.
Pasola literally displays life, but also the island itself. Wild beauty of the unconquered nature is strikingly impressionable. The coast is mostly sandy. The uninterrupted beaches go on for ten miles in any direction. There is nothing on the coast. Not one place we visited was facing the ocean. The land and climate are so rich there that rice is yields in some places three times a year.
Fields are planted with corn and crop so there was never a need for seafood. Numerous cattle can be seen in rice fields between the plantations eating grass and weeds and also fertilizing the land. That is the basis of the economy on the island. Some 70% of people survive on agriculture and they have almost no income unless they sell the excess of the food grown. That part of Suma’s story is crucial to understanding their tourism development. Namely, there are very few schools on the island and there is a chronic lack of skilled workers.
The hotel owner Mario, from Bali, has revealed to us his problems. Decade ago he bought the land by the sea some ten kilometres from the city and Tambolak Airport. Beautiful beach, white sand and no one in a circle of a couple of kilometres. “No one” meaning no electricity, water, telephone signal or roads. Ten years later he managed to get electricity which meant he could have a swimming pool.
The road was paved once and never again – and so it looks. Tankers provide him with fresh water and the phone signal can only be caught in one place so there is no Wi-Fi. An even greater problem was the lack of workforce, so the first thing he did was to found a school where young people interested in working in the tourism sector and those wanting to learn English were educated.
On the island, double in size than Bali, there are only a few hotels. One of them, Nihi Sumba, in some polls leads as the best hotel in the world. The rest mostly have three stars like Mrja, where we were staying, or are Homestay type of accommodation. Homestay means renting a room. At Tambolaka we found the retort Warung Gula Garam – the only place that offered Wi-Fi, good food and chilled Bintang.
You should visit Sumbu for several reasons. There are no majestic temples like in Bali, but the tradition and culture of local communities is very rich. The specific construction of houses that have high central part is associated with Marapu spirits, and also serves for smoking meat. Marapu is a kind of animism that has strong links to dead ancestors. Villages are clans, so in the centre of any of them, you can find a house with the highest peak in which peasants gather for various ceremonies. The oldest person in the village lives in that house. The village is the core of the community. In the past, there were many village wars, but in 1998, everything was calmed so Sumba is now safe for tourists.
There are about 15,000 tourists visiting Sumba per year (mostly Indonesian) and tourism is considered to be the most important development factor in the future. Two airports are expanding and a direct link to Darwin in Australia is expected soon. So far there are several flights a day to Bali and Kupang. Some of the most beautiful beaches have already been bought by the Chinese, Russians, French and Balinese and accelerated construction of hotels is to be expected. Sumba is amongst the poorest islands of Indonesia, so it is not surprising that there is a strong desire for the development of tourism.
Sumba is an ideal destination for those who want to escape the Bali bustle. Just an hour away by airplane you can land in some other dimension where time stopped. There is no Wi-Fi and everything is mellow. The beaches are wonderful, as from the best brochures, nature is wild, people are very friendly and smiling and they sell nothing. They do not know any languages, so all communication is conducted either through a guide or by mime. We stayed in Sumba for 4 nights. It took us two days for a tour of the island with the driver. The roads are in a very poor condition – not suitable for motorbikes. One day for the pool and beach and it was time to return to civilization.