Wini, Indonesia, is one of those towns you don’t stop at unless you have family there. The beach is pebbly, the water is too croc-infested to swim, the main street isn’t equipped to sell you much more than what grows in a backyard, and even though it’s a sleepy place, the Call to Prayer wakes you up just after 4 a.m. and once back to sleep, the chickens start. It’s not Wini that you come for though, it’s the volcanic mountains and the dirt roads that hug them.
As part of a three-month sail regatta, we are offered a guided tour of each stop on the Indonesian Archipelago. For Wini, Redi is our guy. He provides cars and local knowledge so sailors spread a good word on his district, an area of Indonesia uncharted by tourists. With a big grin, he opens the car door and waves us in. I don’t know the plan, but trust he knows more than me.
We head from the bay into the mountains. Kids in school uniform run beside our car, waving, pointing and yelling puti (white). Grey-haired, leather-skin ladies sit on the stoop of their thatched house and oversee the gardening and any village kids passing by the road visible from the stoop.
As we drive deeper, the roads go from smooth to potholed, to dirt, to missing, and then back to paved. At one point, we dip into a dry riverbed and drive below a bridge eaten by the last monsoon. It takes two hours to get to Tamkesi, the Mountain Kingdom nestled between sharp cliffs and located smack-bang in the middle, east to west, north to south, of Timor Island. Formed by angry tectonic plates, the land, though sheer, has pockets of farmland. Cattle, horses, and goats branded with their owner’s initials roam freely. I don’t see farmers or fences, just the animals. After half a day of driving, the car stops at a marble plaque etched with the Bupati, kingdom chief’s, name. A rocky road, too steep for wheels, leads to the top of the mountain and Redi points up. The kids groan.
“No photos until the Bupati says ok,” says Redi. “There are some sacred parts you can’t take pictures of at all.”
I put my phone in my pocket and start the trek up. Halfway, a woman with paper-white hair, dark skin, and happy wrinkles drooping off her cheekbones overtakes me.
“She works in the rice paddies,” says Redi. I stop and stare at her ascent. Her bare feet cling to the loose rocks like a gymnast on a beam. When we get to the top, she is sitting on the stoop of a thatched house and waves at us with a toothless grin.
Redi eyes our pockets to make sure we don’t reach for our phones.
“The mountain to your right,” he says, pointing to jagged gray cliffs, “is sacred. No pictures.”
“That tree,” he points to the bulging roots of a tree that begs climbing, “also sacred. No pictures.” He then points to two thatched buildings that, unlike the other six, have wooden walls and a solid door. “Also sacred. No pictures.”
We nod like school children and continue to climb up the tiered village. A chicken, followed by a toddler, followed by a dog, walks out the open door of one hut. Taking up the rear is a piglet.
When we finally reach the actual top, Redi ushers us into an open-air hut. Inside, three elders in Ikat sarongs sit on bamboo mats. I shake each hand then the middle of the three, the Bupati, directs me to sit across from him on another matt. He holds up a wooden tray where three ingredients-a polished bulls horn, green stems, and fleshy nuts-lay.
The Bupati picks up a green stem, bites its tip, and dips the end inside the bull’s horn. The stem, now covered in white powder, he puts in his mouth. Finally, he picks up the fleshy nut and tosses it in with the other two ingredients and chews, lips locked tight. When he finally smiles, his teeth are blood-red.
“Betel nut,” says Redi, “a ceremony to welcome you to the mountain kingdom.”
The Bupati passes around the tray and when it gets to me, I calculate the risks. I could be poisoned, contract typhoid or disrespect ceremony. I look at the Bupati. He doesn’t seem to be sweating, convulsing or vomiting. When the tray is put in my hands, the three elders look on, miming the first step-dip stem in cow’s horn. Looking at them, the only real risk is disrespect.
I bite, dip, chew. Instantly, my mouth fills with bitter medicine or mild poison. I keep chewing and smiling, trying to keep it all in my mouth. The men watch me as my mouth goes numb. I start to salivate granules drip down my chin. I wipe the dribble and look down at my hand, now smeared red. Bitterness clings to my gums, not salt. The red mustn’t then be blood from blistered cheeks. The ceremony must be working. I know that the nut is supposed to make me feel drunk, but I don’t know if its three-gins drunk of two bottles of wine drunk.
My head is light. All I want to scoop out the goop that clings to my gums. The splatters of red on the stone is a signpost for Don’t Swallow, but I don’t want to be the first to spit. Thankfully, the Bupati stands, walks over to the corner and spits out his mouthful. I get up to do the same, but plop back on the seat, my feet unable to keep me grounded. If I stay, my gums will be forever red and the bitterness will drip down my throat. So, filled with helium, fighting to keep my lips locked, I stand, then walk, one foot in front of the other, eyes on the corner of the hut. I spit on the floor and turn and smile at the Bupati who is laughing. I guess I didn’t disrespect him.
After the ceremonial high, the elders permit us to take photos. I clamber across a collection of volcanic rocks, still flying high, to get a view over the village and into the surrounding valley. The wet season’s color has dried up, and the valleys are yellow pebbled with the odd burst of green from bananas, cacti or fig trees. Up here, the gray thatch blends in with the volcanic rock. Monkeys poke their heads out from behind branches and kid’s happy squeals echo off the cliffs. In one roof, a black reflective square is embedded. On my way down the mountain, I realize it’s a solar panel. Even here, where tradition is stitched into the rocks, technology creeps in to ease life.
On the drive back to the boat, we stop at a cave where Redi’s brother has delivered lunch. I open my box and a fried fish stares back at me. Yesterday, in Kupang Markets, I saw the same fish with flies crawling out of its eye sockets. Again, I weigh my risks. I could eat just the rice, curry, and collard greens that come with it. But this meal, since I don’t eat meat, Redi ordered specially. So, I pick the fish up by the greasy tail, give it a smell and take a nibble. The skin crunches to reveal muddy meat. I dip the whole fish in yellow curry and the next bite is somewhat tolerable, almost enjoyable.
With bellies bulging, we walk a hundred steps to the entrance of the cave. Once inside, the tunnel darkens and bats chirp from above. I turn my phone’s flashlight on its quickly not needed as the cave opens up into a massive cavern, lit by a crack in the ceiling. In the middle of the room is a life-size statue of Jesus showered in yellow light. The cave is a church, and on Easter, hundreds of locals sit at its base for mass. I take a good look at Jesus, trying to see if he has any Indonesian flare. But just like Santa, he looks the same across the world.
We keep walking and come to Mary, half as big as Jesus and standing in a separate cavern slightly smaller than the first, but still showed in natural light. Here, it’s not bats but swallows that chirp and dart around the ceiling. I’m at peace listening chitchatting animals and the flurry of wings. I wonder if the bats and birds stay for Sunday mass or whether they, like most Indonesians, prefer a Mosque to perch in. This cave might smell slightly of cat piss, but at least now every time I whiff or see a cat, I’ll think of Wini and the Mountain Men that got me high.
We head back to the boat retracing this morning’s path. Primary school kids, still in uniform, walk alongside the road with bundles of sticks balanced on their heads. “For fires,” Redi says. In the farmland, machete-wielding men hack into sturdy trees. Here, everyone is moving, working, living, smiling. When I get to the boat, I lay down on the deck and watch the sun sink behind palm trees. The amber light rippling across the water and the palm trees arched into the sun aren’t even close to the most beautiful things I saw today.