Photo: Kalala Beach, East Sumba.

Visiting villages and attending ceremonies is one of the highlights of travelling in Sumba. Most villages are very welcoming, and many are used to tourists. A certain etiquette however should be followed.

You are expected to take a gift of sirih pinang (betelnut). This can be bought in any market or roadside stall for about 10,000 rupiah for a small bundle. If you plan on visiting a few villages in one day, ask them to put a few in separate bags. Add a packet of cigarettes and everyone will be happy. We are not fond of pushing drugs, but asking around, there seemed to be no substitute for these expected gifts, and they are great icebreakers.

The tradition stems from (not so) earlier times to announce that you were friend and not foe. In Sumbanese ritual, a lot of importance is given to returning blood to the earth (usually in the form of sacrifice), and the red spit of the betelnut is seen as a representation of this.

Prailiang village near Waingapu.

Prailiang village near Waingapu.

Be warned that many villages keep dogs, though we found they are all mostly bark, not bite. Don’t turn up and immediately start taking photos around the village. If you have no Indonesian, take a local guide or driver who can translate, as not a lot of English is spoken in the villages. One household, usually the head family, will be the keeper of the buku tamu, or guestbook.

On the outside veranda, you will be invited to sit on a woven mat spread out for you. Take off your shoes and don’t sit with your back to anyone. Hand over your gift and a basket with betelnut will be presented to you. Take some as to refuse is an insult; you don’t have to take all three ingredients, just a nut or a sirih fruit is fine. Look like you put it in your mouth. We found making a show of peeling the nut with your teeth, then surreptitiously slipping it into your pocket works. Often teeth-jarringly sweet coffee or tea is served. Wait until you are offered to drink, then at least have a few sips.

Take a seat. At Wunga village, near Waingapu.

Take a seat. At Wunga village, near Waingapu.

Next the guestbook will be offered. Fill out the column with your name, nationality, comments and a column for a donation. Slip a note into the book and hand it back. We mostly put in a 20,000 rupiah note, which seemed to be about average. At a couple of villages it was requested that we wear traditional ikat and we had to pay additionally for this. In villages that are more used to tourists, ikat and other crafts are offered for sale.

As awkward, uncomfortable and false as these visits may seem when you are only after a quick look and perhaps a photo or two, take the time to converse with your hosts, through a translator if you have no common language. We had some memorable visits and conversations ranging from how poor the English language is (only one word for rice!) to how local farmers need to change their agricultural methods if they don’t want to end up like Nokia (not our opinion, theirs); to interesting cultural titbits such as their history and “maps” being passed down through song.

Checking for omens, Wunga village

Checking for omens, Wunga village

We were invited to view inside several houses and to attend ceremonies. Finally we would be asked if we would like to take photos of the village. By that stage we would no longer feel as much like an imposing tourist, but more like a guest.



Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Sumba? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Indonesia.