Of mice and (wo)men. And whales.

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 27, 2011

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Where I stayed
Mamma Maria's homestay - Lamalera
Hotel Rejeki - Lewoleba
Abel Bedung homestay - Lamalera
What I did
Waiting for Monday to arrive in Lamalera
Joining Paulus on the whale hunt
Ate at Berkat Lomblen (it seemed the only proper) Restaurant in Lewoleba for every meal

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Lewoleba on our destination island of Lembata is a little different. We still get hassled, but it doesn't feel as bothersome as elsewhere and especially in Larantuka. At least it leaves me less aggressive and irritated. No more violent thoughts of wanting to hurt someone. It’s still annoying, but not quite as intense. It actually feels like people are just curious, trying to be nice. Which once again leaves me feeling embarrassed over my lack of tolerance.

Our most adventurous bemo (closed truck with sideways benches inside) trip to date takes us to the place we’ve come for on this island: The whaling village of Lamalera. It’s a pretty ride. They all are. Overgrown dirt road, thick vegetation, lush hills,… the works. Every sway of the bemo tips you to stare straight into the steep slopes. A rollercoaster is less shaky. If we hadn’t been on plenty of rough rides before, this could be scary. It is in fact the worst road we’ve traveled on, but I can’t say that I was afraid of it. Just a bit uncomfy. When a nun gets off, I end up using the washroom in the convent she is visiting. Cleanest loo in a while. One other nun insists I take a whole bushel of bananas for the road.

Lamalera feels peaceful, which might sound contradictory to its peoples’ gory livelihood. No more than 300 adventurous travelers a year make it to the island of Lembata. Yet, against our expectations, we are not bothered much. People do look at us, interested, curious. But not bothersome. Pleasant. Challenging also, because English does not get you anywhere or anything here. You really want to pick up some Bahasa Indonesia. It’s an easy language to learn. We should have tried harder.

This village is an absolute new low in standards. The supposed cleanest place in town comes with filthy bathrooms, never mind clean sheets, the mattresses are lumpy things on top of wooden planks that look like they house living things. I don’t mind the mice I see in the house. But I get so startled I shriek when one runs into the bathroom and over my feet while I am taking a mandi. My yelping scares Manu and wakes the rest of the house. Lying in our smelly shared double bed, Manu asks for her 'mommy’ and I am so grossed out, I barely sleep.

Below I am quoting the Lonely Planet section that intrigued us to come here. I am skipping the gory parts in case you are squirmish. If you aren’t, this is also a good article on the actual hunt and controversy: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/world/the-whale-hunters-of-lamalera/story-e6frf7lf-1225932991222. You decide for yourself how controversial you find it and whether you would have wanted to come.

"Like characters from an Indonesia Moby Dick, the hard-scrabble men of Lamalera village on the south cast of Lembata hunt sperm and pilot whales using nothing more than bamboo harpoons (with iron warheads), wooden boats and prayer. Because of the small numbers of whales taken – from 15 to 25 every year – these hunters are exempt from the international ban on whaling, and their hazardous livelihood continues."


“Baleo, Baleo, the shout goes when potential targets are spotted in the waters of Lamalera. This is the last village on earth where humans still regularly hunt whales by hand, using bamboo shafted harpoons. It’s a hazardous way of live that takes about 15 to 25 sperm whales form the ocean in an average year, a subsistence livelihood that conservation groups have determined does not threaten sperm whale numbers (estimated at over a million worldwide)…..The wooden whaling boats (called tena) are around 10m long and held together with wooden dowels and lashed twine…..all whaling vessels still carry a mast, a sail made from palm leaves and a crew who rows furiously to bear down on a whale when one is spotted. As the gap between the boat and the whale narrows, the harpooner – balanced on a protruding plank – takes a bamboo harpoon and attempts to leap on the back of the whale (using the force of the weight to drive home the harpoon)...... Every part of the sperm whale is used. The dark meat is shared according to traditional dictates, with most of it reserved for the crew and portions of it go to virtually every family in the village. Spermacetu oil from the head (which was particularly prized by 19th century whalers and used to burn lamps) is used for cooking. Innards are traded for fruit and vegetables in a barter only market in the hills. Tourists buy the teeth….”

You might think we are mad, heart- and soulless for wanting to see this. [And for all kinds of different reasons we are (insert creepy laughter here), but] I don’t feel like I am supporting some nasty, evil undertaking that will wipe out another species off this planet. Being here, I witness these people living the simplest life. Electricity has arrived and is now available from 6pm to 6am. But there is nothing here that feels like business. Just people living their lives, doing what they need to do to survive. Which happens to be controversial in our frame of mind. Not unlike eating dog meat. Or cow, or pig, depending on your religion.

Our first morning is angering. We are ready at 7am as discussed with Abel, our hotel/home stay owner. One of his staff/cousins/kids/brothers takes us down to the beach, where all boats seem to have left. Let’s call him Petrus, because they all have biblical names here. We mention the name of the boat Abel had told us we’d go on. Kelimutu, Kulununi, Kelikutu, something sounding similar. ‘Kunnilingus’, we learn from Petrus, is not leaving today. It does not have ‘oil’. WTH? We try to communicate that we had arranged to go with Abel. Abel is out of town until Monday. Are you kidding? If we don’t do this trip today, we have to stay two more nights, because no boats are going out tomorrow, Sunday. Petrus sais he understands and walks off. A solution must be underway. After close to an hour of nothing, we walk back to the hotel to find him sitting there, hanging out on the front porch. This much for “I understand’. We are furious. We pack to move to Mamma Maria, another home stay. I ask for the bill, but only pay the extra food and drinks we had. I refuse to pay the night and meals that are inclusive of the price. We tell them that we’ll pay that once we spoke to Abel. They don’t understand us. We walk off. Mother Abel is fuming, saying things we don’t understand. Petrus is coming after us, friendly enough, saying things we know how to interpret - he wants to be paid, of course. We are saying things they don’t understand. They understand, we are angry and they understand ‘Abel’. And they probably got that we’ll be back Monday to look for Abel. Else, they know we are going to Mamma Maria, so they can find us. If this was a Moby Dick cartoon, we’d have steam coming out of our ears.

Mamma Maria is a gem of a woman. Her homestay is not much cleaner than Abel’s. But I’d rather use an outdoor mandi that is dirty from outdoorsy dust than an indoors one that is filthy for lack of cleaning. Her mattresses (for lack of better vocabulary, if you can call it that – don’t think of a mattress like you are used to) are a bit less lumpy on top of the palm mats over splintered bamboo sticks. Sadly, we can not communicate with her beyond a few words from the back of the Lonely Planet.

I miss civilization. It’s been over a day since we moved to Maria’s. The little piggy screams are starting to get to me. The animal farm symphony this morning overshadowed the sound of the ocean. I want to use a clean sit-down toilet. With flush. I want to take a long hot shower. Feel clean. Wash my hair (for Christ’s sake!). My attempt at doing that with the mandi bucket an hour ago left my hair smelling like musty water. I didn’t use shampoo because I wouldn’t have been able to wash it out properly. So my options are greasy-smelly hair or dirty-water-smelly hair that won’t look clean either way. I want to shave my legs and sleep in a clean bed. Is that too much to ask? I am tired of itching, from the mosquito bites, the repellent, the layers of sun tan lotion, from the thought of what lives in my mattress.

Mamma Maria’s food is quite alright. She supposedly is the best cook in town. But it’s no whole wheat farmers’ bread, with mustard seed salami and goat cheese for breakfast. Or, for dinner, a caprese salad with aged balsamic and medium rare filet mignot with crumbs of blue cheese, and a side of herb-brushed grilled rapini. And for desert, a panna cotta. I want that.

I am also bored of sitting around Maria’s backyard (read: pig and hen sty) reading, watching Lost, talking about travel plans, getting chewed up by bugs, studying the pigs and hens. Even a goat would be nice now. Kidding, but you know, a groomed lawn would do for starters.

As for the whale hunting…. 
On Monday morning, Paulus picks us up and takes us to the ‘Horro Tene’. 12 muscley men including two wiry old ones push it into the water, rolling it over tree branches. They let us climb in before pushing it further and getting in themselves. It’s a simple wooden row boat, a bamboo scooper to remove the water that collects inside is in use most of the time. Manu and I are not fast enough digging up our cameras to film them rowing us out to sea while chanting war cries. We can feel the excitement. Then, they all sit down, cross themselves, fold their hands and say a prayer. Now that the important bits are done, we are out in the bay and they turn on a small, silent motor to take us out further. Soon, we stop. A few men are standing on the edge of the boat, staring out to sea. The others chit chat. Over the course of 5 hours, we keep changing spots using the motor, stop for 30 minutes or one hour. More watching of the waters, more chatter. When we stop, I feel nauseous from the gentle waves, or from the sun that is now high above. With all clouds gone, it is burning fiercely and I am worried of getting a sun stroke. I had that once in Cuba and it sure as hell was not pleasant. I get the feeling that fewer men are now keeping an eye on the water and more are talking. Politics I make out, ‘German’ I make out, so about us I interpret, and who knows what else. I’d love to be able to understand.

You might be relieved to find out we didn’t actually bear witness to any whales being caught. Like mentioned above, the chances of that are not too great. Typically, when there is no whale to be caught, mantas or dolphins (yes, I know!) are being hunted instead. We however have seen zilch, never mind caught any marine life of that scale.
Around noon, with a burst of entertaining muscle power, our men hoist the bamboo mast and palm sail that takes us back to shore. Disappointed and exhausted from the sun, and maybe also a little relieved, we head back to Maria’s.

We could stay another night and go out again tomorrow, but we want to get out. It was charming and peaceful and interesting and all. But I need a shower, cold and basic and dribbly as it may be. I know I can at least get that in Lewoleba. So back by bemo, the way we came. The ride is more comfortable than on the way here, because I am so sandwiched in, I can’t be tossed about. The truck fits 8 people with bags on laps. They manage to squeeze in 12. Plus one lucky bastard besides the driver. Plus no more than 2 on the roof I believe.
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