The Buffalo Racing World series attracts the biggest and fastest beasts from rice paddies across the island of Sumbawa. Races don’t take place on groomed oval tracks or dirt straights, but in swampy fields, the natural habitats for these farming giants. Sumbawa, unlike its near neighbors Bali and Lombok, isn’t advertised as a travel destination in the magazines in your doctor’s waiting room. The easiest access is a flight to Denpasar then a couple of ferries and hefty bus ride on transport systems that aren’t famed for comfort or timeliness. For a sailor, however, it’s a breeze.
The Sail Moyo to Tambora Rally is an annual sailing event aimed to boost tourism in the Lesser Sunda Island chain of Indonesia. We arrive at Badas Port a day after the opening ceremony and squeeze between boats to anchor in a small trash lined bay. The grumble of mopeds and the constant chatter on the marine radio makes me want to swim back to the uninhabited islands we just came from.
Before our engine stills, a local boat pulls up to our back step.
“Hello,” says a woman, rope in hand and one foot ready to jump aboard. “I’m from the tourist department. Anything you need-tours, meals, supplies, laundry- let me know. This afternoon is the parade.”
I thank her, let her know we’ll be there, and head down in my cabin to sort my laundry into whites and darks. Tomorrow, the highlight will be folded underwear and an ironed white uniform free from coffee stains and pen.
Three days into the five-day festival, Sumbawa has become my favorite Island so far. The cities chaos is easily overlooked when your every whim is catered for and tours are organized daily. I marched in a local parade, shoulders brushing against butterflies, birds, elephants, and women with enough makeup sweating off their face to paint the troupe of a traveling circus. I bought a sword from a blacksmith village where each house had a furnace in their front yard and the clang of mallets on molten metal made the cock-a-doodle-doos and the call to prayer sound like they were whispered. Riding in the back of a pickup truck and having to push it up muddy terrain to reach the coffee plantation nestled in the jungle was a highlight. Collecting beans from the poo of Lewak, a nocturnal Marsupial, and tasting the pre-digested coffee was somehow also a highlight. I visited a roof tile factory, an ikat weaving village, and spent the morning at a local Muslim school playing soccer barefoot and sweating under two layers of clothing.
It’s now day four, Race Day, the most anticipated event of them all.
Last night, a rumor floated through the flotilla that sailors can compete. I put up my hand ignorant to what racing a buffalo entailed but knowing every even so far was must-see-must-do.
With a spare change of clothes in my backpack, I pile into a van. We are escorted through the city by police, their flashing lights parting traffic like tuna in a school of baitfish. Trekking up active volcanoes, sailing through stormy seas from Darwin to Indonesia, spearing fish, swimming with sharks, scaling cliffs, and sitting on the bow of the boat as it climbs the face of waves then freefalls with a bang that shatters crockery has injected me with an unhealthy threshold for adrenaline. But, when the bus passes a herd of Buffalo, horns big enough to skewer three men and a watermelon, I decide spectator, cheerleader and under-the-table gambler will be my participatory role. Saf, our tour guide, translator and string-puller shows me a picture of what riding a buffalo entails, and my spectatorship is confirmed.
The event starts at 9, but in Indonesia, that means the first speech will trumpet at 9:30 and no bull will run until the sun is in the center of the sky. We pull into the parking lot at 11:03 as the last of the buffalo are whipped into their village herds, distinguishable by the color of the men’s shirts and the bejeweled shawls draped over the hide.
Saf leads us to a raised shelter lined with seats. Uniformed officials sit in the front row, their badges flashier than the buffalo’s backs. Once seated, a woman wearing a paddy-green hijab hands me a cardboard box that sweats out a meaty-sweat stench. Crammed inside is a bottle of water, a fluoro green roll sprinkled in coconut, a bright pink cupcake, and a banana leaf parcel. I put the box under my seat, not knowing which of the three has the meat surprise. Directly in front is a red-carpet stage lined with drums and exotic instruments and behind that is the 100m long racetrack fenced by hundreds of locals all peering towards the line of buffalos waiting to be paraded.
When the last sailor sits, two officials walk onto the stage and hold up a piece of cloth tied to a wooden stake. Saf explains that this is the target that each racer needs to hit to go through to the next round. Once the stake is planted at the end of the field, musicians and dancers spill onto the stage. Drums pound and jingling hands slice the air. The beat frenzies and the dancers keep pace, their limbs twitching in harmony. A gong chimes and the pageant starts. Whips rap the buffalo’s rump spurring them along the rice paddy. Each buffalo is lead from the ring in its nose by a man, lash at the ready, pants rolled above his knees. The women cheer from the sidelines, their Hijabs concealing everything but their excitement. Thousands of hooves, grouped into villages, trample past, churning green to brown. The winning jockey not only brings glory to his farm and family, but he also banks 6,000,000 million Rupiah.
The first competitor, a man only slightly taller than the buffalo, raises his stick to the crowd and steps onto a backward sloping sled wedged between the two buffaloes that will drag him through the rice paddy field. This is not a sport with comfortable seating, buckles safely hugging the animal’s abdomen, the rider’s feet steadied in stirrups, rein clutched their hand. No, no no. In Sumbawa, you race two buffaloes joined together at the neck by a piece of bamboo attached to a wooden collar all held together by twine. The rider aquaplanes along the swamp, steering his pair of engines though heavy whipping, leaning into the animals heaving bodies and when desperate, tugging at its tail.
Smack, and the first racer is off, whipping and screaming as mud fans around him. He hurtles down the track hollering and whipping. He tramples the prize and jumps off as the buffalo halt at the line of people an arm’s reach from their horns. Three men hound the beast through the unruffled crowd. I walk over to the starting line to watch the men coerce the buffalo to their knees as they wait for their turn.
“Are you standing here to ride?” asks Saf, pointing at the line of competitors.
“Ride, you should ride,” he says, a little too eagerly.
I look at another racer taking off from the pit.
“Is it safe?”
“I will show you how.”
“Ok,” I say, sure that the Indonesian government doesn’t want to promote tourism through YouTube videos of a westerner dragged through rice paddies by two bucking buffaloes.
“Next,” says Saf, pointing at two animals bigger than most cows but smaller than an adolescent elephant.
“Couldn’t you pick little ones?”
“They are calm ones,” he says.
It feels like the plan to get me onto a buffalo was in motion before I even hopped off the bus this morning. I start to regret the enthusiasm I showed yesterday. That was before seeing what riding one, correction, two Buffaloes entailed.
I take off my shoes, give my phone and sunglasses to a stranger, and walk through the mashed paddies to my buffaloes, their horns wrapped in red string, their faces decorated like the horses in Central Park.
“You stand on this,” says Saf pointing at a triangular frame in between the buffaloes, “and hold onto this.” He picks up a stick connected by bundles of twine to the bamboo. There are no places to indicate where on the frame my feet go or how far up the broom handle I should hold. As I step aboard, the whole system creeks and the buffalo recoil. The handlers whisper, stroking the animal’s necks.
“You’ll be fine,” says Saf, looking a little less confident than on the sidelines.
None of it looks safe. I lean back, testing most of my weight on the stick. A swarm of men smile, mischief in their eyes. I squat back like I’m on water skies.
“That’s perfect. Just stay like that.”
Whip, I’m off, catapulting down the track, my stomach still back with Saf. I cling to my stick and squint through a muddy wave. It’s just like waterskiing. My buffalo veer right and I lean left, trying to avoid swiping the crowd. The animals respond, straightening up. Maybe, I can even hit the post. It’s so close, and I am still alive. Nope, I miss the post and jockey towards the line of people in front. They don’t seem to be running, but I don’t know how to stop. I shut my eyes and spring backward into the safety of mud, shit and trampled rice. The crowd ahead parts and the bulls disappear. My hands and legs shake as I walk off the track into cheers. Locals pat my back. Maybe this is what rodeo clowns feel?
A man hoists an old-school video camera onto his shoulder. Beside him is a woman, microphone steering towards me.
I want to walk away, lose them in the crowd. There’s shit in my ears and on my face, and my hair looks something you’d pull out of the drain of public showers.
“We are local news,” says the woman, “can we question you?”
I wipe my face with my just as soiled shirt. “Sure.” What else can I do?
“How do you feel?”
“Shaky, but great.” Like I just rode a buffalo and didn’t die.
“Would you recommend Sumbawa to others, and how will you tell them about his moment.” My brain can’t quite process compound sentences right now, but this question is the reason Sail Moyo to Tambura exists. It’s why there are gift baskets on every seat, why we got to walk in the Festival Parade, why our washing is picked up from our boat, why cars are waiting at the dock to take us into town and why there are people like Saf dousing us in cultural enrichment.
“Yes,” I say. “You have a beautiful Island. The locals are happy and welcoming.”
I know I sound generic, like I could be talking about any of the 18,000 islands along the archipelago, but I’m drunk on adrenaline. “Craftsmanship is exquisite,” I continue. “Riding those buffaloes was one of the best moments of my life. Amazing. Sumbawa won’t stay hidden for much longer.”
I tell her today will be talked about with family around the dinner table, with friends over a glass of wine, and with the world through social media. I tell her what she wants to hear.
What I don’t tell her is that Sumbawa isn’t all dandelions and dragonflies. The heat rips sweat from your pores and melts your flip-flops. When the sun sinks, mosquitos armed with malaria and Dengue Fever hum at your neck. You take pills to prevent getting infected, but the tablets give you vivid dreams, achy joints, and bouts of insomnia. Across most of the island, trash clogs the rivers, and come rainy season, a torrent of plastic spews into the ocean.
What interests the brave, deters the cabana seeking holidaymakers. Steaming volcanoes, crater lakes, and black sand beaches are a telltale to Sumbawa’s residency in the Ring of Fire. In 1815, the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history shot from Mount Tambora killing 10,000 people instantly and another estimated 80,000 due to disease and famine spurred on by crop failures that reached Europe.
On our sail to Badas, we stopped in at a boat-building village that looks across at Mount Tambora. Just above the hightide line, men build 80 ft boats with hands saws, coconut husk, teak, and not a single nail. Seashells, bottle tops, straws, driftwood, candy wrappers, and speckled pebbles wash ashore with the odd curled flip-flop.
Mount Tambora is a bomb; it’s fuse 20, 500, or 1000 years long. Watching the smoke swirl from cracks in the mountain makes you realize how fickle the human race is. Sumbawa, with its tectonic grumbles and non-existent public amenities, is for the bold and those who can afford travel insurance.
A couple of resorts and rumored surf breaks beckon tourists to the western tip, but it’s a massive island of dense forest, grassy savanna, jagged mountains, and thick swamp. To drive east to west across the island will take ten hours and you’ll want to stop for a massage halfway. Sure, there’s a freight train of attractions, but the mountainous jungle in the center prevents zigzagging across the island to check them out.
Standing in front of the interviewer with mud trickling into my eyes, I can’t tell her that hoards tourist won’t come unless public services exist. Most of us want to sip icy cocktail without fear of cholera and not to have to pour a bucket of water into a squat toilet to flush it, right? Unless deckchairs line beaches, artisans line streets, and mosquito nets cover queen beds, then Sumbawa will continue to be that Island tourists fly over on their way to Bali.
“This is a top tourist destination for backpackers, sailors and geology enthusiasts,” I say.
Once the camera is switched off, I head back to the edge of the track where the shower, a hose as thick as my thigh, spews water into the paddy. I pick it up, and a torrent of water hits my face. A man takes it from my hands, hoists it over his shoulder, and I stand underneath the flow watching the mud steam from my hair down my body and back into the fields.
On my way back to the tent I’m stopped by another news crew and asked the same questions. This time I can at least talk in full sentences rather than just a collection of adjectives-amazing, great, beautiful.
Back at the tent, I sit behind the dignitaries and watch the races hoping I don’t still smell like a sewer. One out of three riders hit the pin, and one in twenty fall off, the unlucky ones tumbling forward. One man gets dragged under the buffalo and is carried off the field, his face contorted, his hands clutching his askew leg. If I’d have seen this outcome before racing, I wouldn’t have taken off my shoes. Health insurance doesn’t cover buffalo racing. Fearful of ringworm and whatever other organisms lurk in the paddies, I sully a packet of baby wipes and vow to swallow two cloves of garlic when I get back to the boat.
Now that it’s lunch time and nervous energy has devoured the two bowls of oatmeal I had for breakfast, the “goody” box under my seat temps. The iridescent coconut sprinkled log looks the most appetizing, so I nibble its ends and realize it’s just a crepe with crushed peanuts and sugar inside. Why it’s Fluro green is a mystery. 20 minutes later the pink muffin becomes appealing. I break it in half and realize it is just a pink muffin, no surprise center. All that’s left is the banana leaf. I’ve learned not to trust the innocence of a banana leaf, but I unfold this one to discover densely packed rice. I take a bite and then spit the meaty sweet glob back into the box.
Saf joins me under the pergola, and I ask him if women ever race.
“It’s a man sport,” he says.
“Surely, some women have tried it.
“I haven’t seen any. You might be the first.”
When I get back to the boat, I google Buffalo Racing in Sumbawa and my ego deflates. The BBC’s Last Woman Standing used the sport as one of its challenges a couple of years ago. Not only am I not the first woman, but I’m not even the 5th.