A hunt in the deep forest where I vanquished a wild boar with my hands followed by the martial Caci (pronounced ‘chachi’) dance when I leapt and brought the whip down on my opponent from a jaw-dropping sky-angle. It didn’t take any of these for the Manggarai tribe of Kampung Melo (‘kampung’ is ‘village’ in Indonesia) in Flores island and their headman to declare me the chief from the visitors’ side for the day; guess they decided to settle for the guy stumbling about with the biggest backpack and lachrymose eyes, thanks to the sudden bright afternoon sun after an air-cooled 45-minute drive from Labuan Bajo, 17 winding kilometres away. In Indonesia, it is not difficult to feel the welcome anywhere you go, but in Melo, you live it.
The clan leader in his ceremonial finery and heirloom kris waited for us with finely turned out villagers beneath a bamboo archway with palm leaves. Gilpy little girls giggled as we were led up the hummock to the village square by the adults chanting a communal orison. The Manggarai inhabiting western Flores have never numbered more than a million but speak their own language and follow their own political clan system. There are primarily three clans—each assigned their own social function in the largely agrarian community.
The two chiefs sat facing each other in the centre of the village. One waxed earnest, sonorous, on how privileged he was to host the other and his tribe. The other nodded vigorously at every translated gist and looked around solemnly at the members. Gifts and money were exchanged, primarily one-way. This included a rooster with drooping eyelids, probably the mid-day heat or just plain bored. The ceremonies and the traditional programmes are organised by a cultural cooperative, which has taken upon itself to keep alive the centuries-old customs and traditions of the Manggarais by re-enacting them for tourists.
A paan box—filigree encrusted, oblong metal, rusted to iron brown—was taken around by a robust woman in silken brocades. The sweeter, cloudy tuak and the clearer, more potent sopi palm toddy were brought out in bongos or cups fashioned from coconut shells.
The lunch—chicken and fish (fried and barbecued, beef) minced and garnished with grated coconut, a lemony curry and red rice textured with a smattering of husk—was served in a modest hovel on stilts in the square. It was actually a library with a large collection of illustrated and comic books. It was my first encounter with Taman Bacaan Pelangi or Rainbow Reading Gardens started in 2009 by conservationist and blogger Nila Tanzil to encourage reading among children of under-developed provinces of eastern Indonesia. Started with just 200 books and one centre, today there are 40 Rainbow Reading Gardens across 14 islands.
The dolmen in the courtyard shimmered under the sun in anticipation of the action; drums, gongs and gamelans were being placed. The curtain-raiser was the centrepiece of Manggarai machismo, the Caci dance, a whip fight choreographed to minimum physical contact and maximum showmanship. The faux chief was summoned to crack the first whip.
My opponent was shirtless, wearing white hessian trousers flapping in the cooling breeze. From the songket, a tail rose rigid with a furried tip; it was to add to the overall ferocity quotient. It all worked pretty well till I heard the plangent cowbells attached to his ankles. He wore a horned wooden mask and held a leather shield. Our eyes met and he smiled. Clever! I measured the distance to the shield with the whip. In my best Troy-inspired move, without batting an eyelid I did a tricky lunge from the left and lashed out from the right. Soon enough I was relieved of the whip and the real chief signalled for the festivities to begin.
The fervour, I hoped, might be something they have come to expect of my tribe.