Busyadores: the nest gatherers of Palawan

We were on a boat heading East to Pabellon Island. I had met Omi the day before, after a long struggle to get permission to set my foot on this remote archipelago. Omi, the holder of the bird’s nest concession, had granted me a ride but he was not to join until the very end of the harvest. The men around me were leaving for the first trip of the season and I did not really know what to expect from the three days and nights I was about to spend on this cut-off island in the Sulu Sea. Needless to say, I did not speak a word of Filipino, but I was lucky to be with Alfred, a friend I had met a couple of days before at the local market who was willing to be my translator for the coming days. I was up and ready to follow these workers on their daily quest for nests.

I must confess the first time I heard of edible nests I thought it was a hoax. Is somebody seriously willing to pay for a bowl of soup made from hardened strands of bird saliva? Yet, Rosmal was not up for jokes. He was a serious man living in a small village in the North-East of Borneo, father of five and a hard worker. He was about to spend a whole season away from his family to collect nests in the most inaccessible of places: on the roofs and sharp walls of the intricate Gomantong cave system.

It seemed so extraordinary that I was totally hooked by the story.

The idea was to be back in a year and a half during the harvest season, but the more I was making plans the more I was stumbling into closed doors. Nest collection is a heavily regulated business and getting a permit to Gomantong cave was proving to be a hard and costly task. After yet another disappointing call to the local government office, I had eventually given up and started looking into alternative locations. It did not take long before setting my eyes on the Northern tip of Palawan, Philippines.

The engine-propelled Bangka, an overgrown canoe outfitted with two bamboo outriggers for increased stability, had just left the pier of Taytay, a sleepy town on the Northeastern tip of Palawan. During the 1-hour long trip that led us to the Pabellon Island, Alfred was doing his best to translate the common set of questions about my age, number of children and marital status. On my part, I was trying to get a first glimpse into the life of these hard-looking men, thought it was difficult to get over the embarrassment you might expect from people who just met for the first time. Things would have certainly started to smooth over by the end of the day.

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What a sight this island was. A pristine stretch of sand lapped up by the azure waters, surrounded by a dramatic limestone cliff. A few shacks were scattered around, providing food and shelter to a dozen of fearless workers locally known as busyadores.

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Busyadores have been climbing these karsts for centuries and regulations have been introduced in Taytay as early as 1927 to guarantee the conservation of the birds. The collection period begins in December with the “limpiada”, literally the cleaning of the cave wall from the old nests in preparation of the new season. The first harvest follows in January and it is completed over seven collection periods with 15 days interval. After the last harvest, busyadores observe a long resting period to allow swiftlets, known by the locals as balinsasayaw, to repeatedly lay eggs until fledging.

 

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We were welcomed by the island caretaker. “Please, join us for dinner tonight!”, he said while handling a large pot on the backyard fire. Men were starting to assemble around the fireplace with the few exceptions of those on duty for the night.

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At more than $2500/Kg, bird’s nests are among the most expensive food consumed by humans, feeding a growing market worth $5 billion a year. It comes as no surprise that nest poaching is a major problem, posing a major threat to not only the workers but also to the swiftlets population. Thieves are sometimes spotted in the middle of the night; they leave their boats and swim to the shore for a few hundred meters before climbing in darkness on the top of the island. They will spend a few days in solitude, trying to steal as many nests as possible before getting back to their comrades. To prevent poaching, armed guards patrol the island for the length of the harvesting season, on the look out for unwanted visitors. “What if they are caught?”, I asked Omi’s brother who had just joined with another boat. “We bring them to the authorities, but chances are that they are shot to death and let sink in the sea”.

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The next morning busyadores set out for the neighboring Pequeno Island, carrying flashlights, ropes and bamboo poles. Some of the men were holding a handmade stick ending with a bent fork, to remove nests from the most unapproachable walls.

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Arthur, 24 years-old, was among the youngest and the only one climbing without poles. Eduardo, 51 years-old from Pangatalan, was the oldest. “I started climbing 45 years ago at the age of six; there was a narrow cave where only small children could go”, he recalls.

“Most of us prefer climbing without ropes, but rocks can be sharp and slippery, and the risk of an accident is high. I remember a few men falling; it’s a dangerous business”.

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Guano is among the most accessible caves on the island and one of the few where light found a way through. It can be entered through a narrow passage, which quickly opens up into a 100m high chamber, making it one of the few places where it is actually possible to witness the whole process.

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Slowly and steady, busyadores made their way through a path walked by their ancestors for countless generations. It took them about 1 hour to set up ropes and bamboo ladders and another hour to harvest the nests.

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I was holding my breath when Alfred forced his way through a crack in the cliff face, fighting with darkness and the constant risk of falling to his death for a bunch of nests.

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It took them approximately two days to cover the craggy skyscrapers that characterize the entire concession. Busyadores knew the pathway and quickly ventured from one dark cave to the other through an established routine, bringing back their gatherings to the wooden hut. Michael, 27 years old from Meytegued island and among the most skilled climbers, was particularly satisfied.

“I collected more than 100 nests; at Php 80/gram, this is worth three times the salary I get on a gasoline boat during the resting season”

Back to the hut, Michael and the other workers would then fine-tune their gatherings by removing feathers and dirt with a blade and the most precise instrument of their hands.

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Omi had arrived the same morning to sort through the nests and pay the seasonal worker. The finest grade of bird’s nest (“A” grade) would fetch up to Php 170/gram, while the lower quality “B” and “C” grade would sell for Php 130/gram and Php 70/gram, respectively. For one of the most expensive foods on earth, even the debris did not go waste; they would be soaked in water, cleaned from impurities and sold for Php 10/gram. “I am taking the nests to Taytay, traders are waiting for me there. Most of the nests will be shipped to Manila and then to other Asian markets”, he revealed.

In China, bird nests are considered a treasured health supplement, raising libido and improving the immune system.

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While demand for this delicacy is soaring, nest gatherers are faced with some major challenges. Prices are plummeting, owing to artificial nest farming in windowless building that emulate cave environments, putting the income of traditional gatherers at risk. Sustainability concerns have also been raised and the swiftlets population is suspected to be in decline because of poaching and over harvesting. In this regard, the Pabellon concession is a virtuous example of sustainability, as the strict regulations put in place (nests are never collected if eggs are present and harvesting times are strictly followed) give the birds enough time to reproduce. Given the mutual relationship between the birds and the local communities dependent on them, a bright future might still lie ahead.

 

Men where ready to return to their families. When I began my journey back to Taytay, night was approaching and I had time to reflect on this captivating experience. Meeting these people brought concepts such as courage, strength, and determination on a totally new dimension.

 

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Unravel a Photograph – And why you want to have a light on your next trip

I have been asked many times how do I take my travel photographs and how much post processing is involved.

To put is simple, all of my photographs undergo some basic sharpness/saturation/contrast corrections, plus more consistent editing depending on the subject or the message I want to emphasize. If you’re shooting raw, as I do, there’s no way around it.

But the real question should be: is there any amount of post-processing that can rescue a badly composed frame, shot in a bad light? It depends. If you are a master of Photoshop there’s a good chance you’ll eventually get a decent pic, but shooting it right from the start will get you faster and more consistent results.

Below is an example of one of my favourite pictures I took in Wainyapu, during my 2014 trip to Sumba. I was staying in the hut of Thomas, the village chief, when his father came to visit the family from nearby. I immediately thought he was a great subject; the hat, the traditional Sumbanese knife and the red-stained teeth called for a fantastic picture.

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

The main problem were:

  • finding a compelling composition that made justice to the character and the location.
  • the lack of light. In the traditional village, huts are very dimly lit and there are no windows; the only available light comes from the porches at the sides and barely breaks the darkness.

So here is how approached the subject.

The first thing was to politely ask the guy if it was OK to take a few pictures. People usually don’t mind and we were guests, so things went really smooth here.

The second thing I did was to unwrap my softbox and connect it to my off-camera flash. The softbox is a not-so-bulky piece of equipment that every travel photographer should have in his bag. Yeah, at the beginning it takes that little extra space in your backpack that you would love to fill with something else, and, honestly, it is intimidating (both for me and the subjects) to unfold it. But I have been carrying it for several years now and I find myself using off-camera lights more and more regularly; the fact that I have a crush for dark, indoor scenes doesn’t help either…

If a total stranger agrees for a photograph, it doesn’t mean he’ll stand for an hour waiting for the perfect shot as a paid model, so things have to unfold relatively quick. Below is a series of compositions I did before getting it right; the whole process, from the test shots to the final one, didn’t take more than 5 minutes.

I started right away with the off-camera flash on, there wasn’t simply enough light to get the details of the elder unless of really pushing the ISO. The idea is to isolate the subject, but retain some details in the background to give a contest. I set the flash in TTL mode -1EV. In (1) the composition is off, eyes are drawn away, so I asked the subject to move right (f2, 1/125, ISO800). In (2) the composition is getting better, but there’s too much light. Also, the the flash is too much perpendicular to the subject and the contrast is a bit dull. Comparison1

I then adjusted aperture and shutter speed and the subject is now well isolated from the background (3), but the light is still dull. It’s an ok shot, but everything is a bit “meh”. I moved the light a bit closer, 45° between camera and subject, and asked the elder to hold his Parang (knife) for a nicer composition that’s now filling the frame (4). For this shot I was at f2, 1/320, ISO800; there’s much more depth and contrast on the subject and the background is nicely blurred.

That’s all for the shot. What about post processing? Below is the before and after.

Before and after

The first thing I realized when I opened the picture on my screen is that the background was still too bright and cluttered. I then selectively brought brightness down, without touching the main subject; some might argue the background is too dark now, but that’s my style and the mood I like in my pictures.

One of the main issues were the hairs of the elder; the light from the flash, which I gelled to match the colour of the bamboo-walls, bounced on his hat and t-shirt giving the hairs and unnatural green cast. I then desaturated the hairs to restore their original colour.

The rest is a simple sharpness, contrast and colour adjustment to add some drama to the shot. The whole post-processing didn’t take me more than 10-15 minutes.

To conclude. Even the shot in (1) would have been a decent one; but with some little extra effort in finding the good composition and the right light I believe I achieved a nicer photograph and saved lots of post-processing time.

Hope this helped and answered some questions!

Sacred Highlands

I think there is no place on Earth other than the Northern highlands of Ethiopia where Christianity is so deeply rooted into the soul of the people.

Eager to witness the rich cultural heritage and the mythological ties between Jerusalem and Ethiopian religious beliefs, I had been planning a trip to Ethiopia for a few years. And I have not been disappointed; but I have also found a land full of contradictions.

My journey began in the Tembien mountains, a remote region in the Eastern part of Tigray that host some remarkable rock-hewn churches. Despite a soon to be finished surfaced road that will connect the Tembien to both Axum and Hawzien, the place is hard to access without a private vehicle and local communities are still slightly amused by the sight of a foreigner.

In the rural countryside of Tembien, most people live in traditional stone-house farms, consisting of an animal compound and one or more single-storey buildings covered by a straw roof. On the way to some rock-hewn churches between Adwa and Abi Aday, we stopped for directions in one of these villages and ended up spending almost an hour to chat with the family of a friendly shepherd.

Traditional stone-house village at the base of Gebriel Wukien church

Traditional stone-house village at the base of Gebriel Wukien church

 

Entrance to the churches can be hit and miss, as it often depends on your luck in finding the priest with the key and his willingness to let you in. While this was straightforward in Gebriel Wukien, a monastic complex where we were invited by the slightly euphoric monks to drink some tella, a locally home-brewed beer, in Maryam Hibeti we had our faith questioned before finally gaining access to the church itself.

Maryam Hibeti looks more like an hermit place than a church, partially hidden on the side of a gorge and only accessible after an exhausting hike. The gloomy, cathedral-like interior is cut free from the rock behind and consist of a cloister, a main chamber and a holy spring.

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 When the deacon started to murmur some passages from the bible beside the priest on his side, we moved outside to take shelter in the shadow before setting out for the way back. There we noticed two old women sitting by the church’s door. They explained they came from the village beyond the gorge and were here to help the partially blind priest with his daily routine.

This strong link between the clergy and local communities was a recurrent theme of our experience in the highlands

Later in the afternoon we arrived at Abuna Yohanni, a monastery carved into the side of a sandstone cliff and accessible through a system of steps and nooks. The chatty monks living around were among the friendliest folks we met during our trip and they didn’t mind to have some pictures taken in the labyrinth of tunnels or while reading a prayers book.What we didn’t enjoy was the attitude of the youngsters living at the base of the cliff, spoiled by the large tips handed over by unaware tourist groups (as our guide explained on the way back). This didn’t ruin our visit and it was nothing compared to the most visited places, nevertheless we were startled at how quickly the effects of “mass” tourism are reaching this remote part of Tigray.

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Abba Yohanni

 

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Abba Yohanni priest reading a goat skin prayer’s book

On the other hand, monks are trying to do some good with the tourist bucks and the money collected thanks to the standard 150 Birr entrance fee was recently used to bring electricity, paint the facade in questionable colors and build a new railing on the cliff face. While as a result of the renovation works one of the most photogenic facades in Ethiopia is arguably less atmospheric than it was before, the church is now more easily approached by the elderly and people with a bad head for the heights.

What should be remembered is that rock-hewn churches are primarily active sites of worship and not tourist attractions; this is what sets them apart from other man made wonders.

A couple of days later we arrived in Lalibela for the forthcoming Easter celebrations. We were introduced to Destawu, a local guide recommended by a friend in Addis that would have been a valuable and knowledgeable friend for the coming days.

Lalibela consist of monolithic and semi-monolithic churches holding strong symbolic connections with Jerusalem. The complex is divided into a northwest cluster, representing earthly Jerusalem, and a southeast cluster, representing heavenly Jerusalem, separated by the Jordan river. Bet Giyorgis, a stand alone, cross-shaped church, lies apart from the others and symbolize the Ark of Noah.

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Bet Giyorgys

Churches are like a labyrinth to me, an 800 years old labyrinth that leave you speechless the more you wander through the system of tunnels and trenches connecting one chamber to the other. The secret pathways, the smell of candles, the light passing through the cross shaped windows and the withe robed priest give a sort of aura, a solemn feeling to these buildings.

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The Holy week is probably the busiest and most colorful period to visit Lalibela, although most of the the celebrations are concentrated on the the three days preceding Easter. After a few days spent to wander among the different clusters, on Holy Thursday a long dark tunnel took us to the little Bet Merkorios, where a few priest were sitting waiting for the afternoon mass.

A tunnel opening at the entrance of Bet Mercorios

A tunnel opening at the entrance of Bet Merkorios

Psalms and prayers were being recited that day and we were lucky enough to assist to a solemn mass that reached its climax with the ritual washing of feet.

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Kedassie

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Ceremony of washing the feet on Holy Thursday

 

The Holy Friday is a day of sorrow. Early in the morning a short walk took us to Bet Maryam, right in time to witness the sight of thousands of pilgrims gather in and around the churches to mourn the death of Jesus.

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Seeing these people praying all day, fasting under the hot sun and sleeping within cracks in the ground, makes you realize their faith is not something to be taken lightly.

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Prayers on Holy Friday

The faithful prostrate themselves at the sound of a little bell from dawn till 3 p.m., when a representation of Christ’s body is carried into the church after a short procession.

A representation of the body of Christ is brought into the sanctuary of Bet Maryam

A representation of the body of Christ is brought into the sanctuary of Bet Maryam

In the yard surrounding Bet Maryam we could assist to a ritual unique to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. Several deacons formed a circle surrounding a man in the middle holding a stick with a candle at its tip. At the end of the prayer all men stroke the stick and extinguished the fire, a symbolic ritual to chase the devils and curse Judas and his generation. This marked the end of the day and the beginning of a night of watchful expectation.

On Holy Saturday there wasn’t much going on during the day, with villagers flooding the local market in anticipation of Easter. Churches came back to life at night for the most important of the celebrations: the resurrection of Christ.

We decided to spend the night in the yard surrounding Bet Giyorgis, supposedly more quite and peaceful than the crowded Bet Maryam and Bet Medhane Alem. We entered through a door at the end of the trench and were enveloped by a thick darkness, pierced only by the candles of the priests murmuring passages from the Bible.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

We waited, until suddenly, at midnight, candles were blown out and the church plunged into a pitch black. In a fever of excitement, pressed by the crowd that was now filling every corner, a light emerged from the sanctuary breaking the surreal silence. “Christ has risen”, was heard everywhere, hundreds of people now lighting their candles with the solitary flame that came out of the blackness. People began walking along the sides of the church and the flames leaped from candle to candle, lighting the most remote corners of the sanctuary.

The rite of resurrection on Holy Saturday around Bet Goyorgys

The rite of resurrection on Holy Saturday around Bet Goyorgys

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In the sense of hospitality and communion that was permeating the place a priest lent me his stick to take some rest amid the standing crowd. I accepted gratefully and stood for a few minutes while watching the light of candles slowly fading away.

That was a great, moving ceremony, one of the moments I want to remember when I’ll think of Africa.

 

The next morning only a few worshippers were left praying around the churches. Easter marks the end of fasting and Destawu invited us for lunch in his place; we had a great meal with him and his family and possibly the best coffee ever!

With the town rapidly going back to its routine, we had time to rationalize what had happened during the last few days. If is unquestionable that Lalibela is a spiritual place, possibly the holiest place in Ethiopia for Orthodox Christians, there’s much going unseen to the casual traveler. Talking to some “educated” people in town, we learned that Lalibela has recently undergone a resettlement project that forcedly relocated villagers from the hills around the religious complex, with little compensation. According to official documents, the scope of the project financed by the world bank, was to “enhance the upkeep of the historic and cultural sites and the promotion of these sites as tourist attractions”. Personally, I think that the identity of a place is given by the nature of the people living around and seeing empty tukuls dotting the area around the “core zone” gave me a weird feeling. If sustainability means turning an active holy place in a tourist playground, which I am afraid might happen in the recent future, the development of the town should probably be reconsidered.

Old Tukuls dotting the hills around the Core Zone of Lalibela

Old Tukuls dotting the hills around the Core Zone of Lalibela

The relocation also gave some extra power to the clergy, which is in charge to manage (part of) the tourist money flooding into the monolithic complex. While this money was supposed to be used for some public utility projects, the 800+ priests living in Lalibela have apparently different ideas and are in the process of building their third hotel in town. Again, I could touch with my hands the faith of both priests and worshippers, but coming from a country where the business side of the clergy is so plain obvious, I found all of this disturbing to say the least.

With the end of the Easter celebrations, a very long drive took us to Mekele and then forward to the Gheralta region, home of the most stunning and inaccessible rock-hewn churches of Tigray. It’s anybody’s guess why these churches were built in hard to get cliffs; was it for protection from the Jews or the Muslims? Were they hermitages, spiritual places where to pray a step closer to God, the wind as your only comrade? People gave us different versions, but what’s certain, these churches maintain an aura and a spiritual integrity that you won’t find anywhere else in the Christian world.

After a stop at the architectural masterpiece called Abreha we Atsbeha, in the early afternoon we reached the base of the Kororo massif, a red stained vertical wall standing fierce near the village of Megab. Our guide took us through a scar-looking path in the mountain, the same path climbed by countless faithfuls over the centuries and apparently the only way to get on top. We pulled hard on our legs until we finally reached the church of Maryam Korkor; the scenery was astonishing.

Panorama of Gheralta from Maryam korkor

Panorama of Gheralta from Maryam korkor

A priest took us to a small complex of nooks and caves where he was living with other monks. They offered some food and tella and we spent a good 30 minutes to chat with them.

He didn’t speak of the hardship of life, but he couldn’t hide it. We realized that these men couldn’t escape into open solitude without a strong faith, without something to believe in.

We paid a visit to Maryam Korkor and then walked to the nearby Daniel Korkor, a very small church fell in disuse sitting above a precipice, with great views over the valley below. As with other monastic complexes in the region, women were not admitted in the room holding the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant hidden behind a thick layer of curtains and only visible to the clergy.

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We enjoyed so much walking around that we didn’t realize it was getting dark. After a few more photographs right before sunset, we rushed down the mountain, and luckily we were caught by the night just a few hundreds meter before the car.

One of the highlights in my plan was the church of Abuna Gebre Mikael. After crossing fields of euphorbia and acacia trees we failed once to locate the priest with the key, but we could finally find him in the village at the base of the escarpment on a second attempt, thanks to the help of kids leaving around. Father Rufael guided us through the “men’s route”, a steep ascent requiring some clambering and a good head for the heights; his sure-footedness was astounding. Father Rufael was attended elsewhere for a wedding and he didn’t make it easy for us, but to our shame we had to stop a couple of times to catch breath before getting on top. The church is a little jewel, one of the few I have seen with no signs of the modern world. The light filtering from the only door and the little windows gives a very special mood to the ornate interior.

Father Rufael inside Abuna Gebre Mikael

Father Rufael inside Abuna Gebre Mikael

Before setting out for the descent, Father Rufael told us about his life. He had been appointed as the new priest of Gebre Mikael the month before, to relieve the previous, old priest from the burden of a daily climb to the peak. There wasn’t much time to talk and we quickly moved on the way back, this time taking the less vertiginous “women’s route”.

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We ended up close to the house where Father Rufael was attended, right in time to partake in the wedding celebrations. We were welcomed as guests, offered food and tella, asked to take a picture of every person for the amusement of the crowd.

A Woman preparing injera in a village at the base of the Kororo massif

A Woman preparing injera in a village at the base of the Kororo massif

A woman shown me how to prepare injera. Nobody asked money, we were just friends among friends. That was the real Ethiopia.

Seven days to Pasola

Horsemen roam the battlefield, spears are flying and hopefully there will be blood soaking the ground, a necessary toll to guarantee a bountiful harvest: this is Pasola, an astonishing joust that marks the end of a ceremonial ritual taking place after the February and March full moon, when sea worms called Bau Nyale flood the coast of South-West Sumba.

Sumba is a hilly island off the tourists’ radar that lies on the southern end of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Due to its geographical isolation, Sumba is one of the poorest and most untouched Indonesian destinations, still too wild and underdeveloped to attract the casual tourist. If you can’t live without electricity, wi-fi or running water, you’d better stop in neighbouring islands; but if you’ll manage to break the shield of diffidence, you’ll discover a world of genuine smiles, postcard-like natural wonders and  witness century old animistic rituals that set Sumbanese apart from the rest of the archipelago.This sounds plain obvious, but spending some time to “get known” in the village will make the whole difference between being asked for money by a greedy villager for taking a shot and getting invited for lunch in his hut.

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Getting to Sumba is now a relatively easy task, but much harder was to time our international flight to witness Pasola and the week-long ceremony preceding the battle. We tentatively arranged our schedule to be on the island during the March full moon, as Bau Nyale are supposed to arrive from the sea 5-7 days later, with Pasola taking place immediately afterwards. Our plan was to assist at the Wanokaka Pasola, which according to the sparse information we were able to gather beforehand, was supposed to happen at the end of March. After the 1h30′ flight from Bali to Tambolaka came the first surprise. Our hosts, Lucas and Siska, regrettably told us that we were about a month late for the Wanokaka Pasola; that was apparently a big mistake by the local priest, but there wasn’t much we could do at that point. Then two things happened. First, Siska told us that three other Pasola were scheduled in South West Sumba; that was disappointing as I had already a well organized photographic plan for the Wanokaka area, but nevertheless I felt amused by the new challenge of exploring a relatively unspoiled area. Second, Siska introduced us to Ansel, an English teacher in the Kodi area that would have been our tireless guide and translator for the coming days.

Enough chat for now, let’s the picture tell the rest of the story.

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Betel nuts and Limestone powder

Before heading to the village, our new friend suggested to stop at some ramshackle market stalls to stock up on betel nuts and cigarettes for our host family and the Ratus. Betel nuts are some sort of mild stimulant customarily offered before any talking is done; chewed together with limestone powder they give saliva a deep red colour that stains most of villagers’ teeth.

After about three hours drive we reached the traditional village of Wainyapu where we where welcomed on a front porch lined with pig jaws by Thomas, the Kepala Kampung. Thomas, his wife and the six kids turned out to be incredibly genuine and hospitable folks and we felt as part of their family for the whole length of our stay.

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Living in Wainyapu is like stepping back 100 years. There’s no electricity, no running water, cooking is done outside or in a big fire lit in the middle of the “rumah”. The traditional house is a wooden structure built around four pillars that support a high roof covered in Alang grass, while a bamboo floor separate the living part from the underground stable. Houses are often aligned around a yard dotted with tombstones and sacrificial altars where ceremonies are carried out.

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

In a house we found this elderly man holding his parang, the traditional Sumbanese knife made by a buffalo horn hilt and encased in a wooden scabbard. As the room was dimly lit, I got some extra light from a softbox holding an off-camera flash, gelled with a pale gold filter, fired through a TTL trigger.

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato's house

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato’s house

At night we heard some voices coming from the house of the Rato, the spiritual leader of the village. Ansel offered to take us there and explained that every night during the week preceding Pasola, the Rato is performing a ritual speech about Nyale and, ultimately, Pasola itself. Not long ago, this Nyale ritual was meant to bring together far away communities and find a partner from a different village; young men and women, dressed to their best, formed separate groups and flirted by the mean of poetic songs and subtle word games. Nowadays, mostly kids sit around the Rato and respond to his speech in a sort of loud choir; nevertheless, the whole ritual is still touching and extremely meaningful to the people in the village, that learn about their ancestors through the memories of the Rato.

Horses at Wainyapu beach

Horses at Wainyapu beach

After photographing in and around the village for a few days, I paid a visit to the beach close by. The news of a foreigner wandering around summoned hordes of kids longing to show their riding skills, so finding a subject for my camera was far from difficult. The horses fighting in Pasola are surprisingly small for European standards, yet well suited for the battle due to their strength and resistance.

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The night before Pasola every person in the village takes part in a ceremonial ritual aimed at maintaining a peaceful relationship with the Marapu, a term that indicates the whole of the ancestral spirits.

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

Women bring small offerings to the Marapu in the form of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime, while men perform ritual dances in a crescendo of sounds and participation. The procession rapidly moves to the outskirts of the village and terminates at the megalithic tombstones surrounding the Pasola field.

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People in the village light votive candle on a grave to honour the memory of their ancestors and reconcile with the Marapu

As the sun sets and the moonlight grows stronger, candles are lit on the graves and the whole village turns into a scene that seems to come straight from a tale. As following the procession with a flash and a softbox was extremely inconvenient, I took this shot with the little artificial light coming from the candles: the high ISO capability and extended dynamic range of most recent cameras made possible this kind of shot, which I couldn’t have taken a couple of years ago with my old camera.

By the time the night approached, the village was buzzing with the sound of hundred peoples from the neighbourhood and “our” house was now sheltering 50+ member of the extended family in a joyful atmosphere. If it is unquestionable that celebrations hold a strong symbolic meaning, they are also an occasion for distant member of the family to come together, have some chat over a clove cigarette and ultimately strengthen their bonds.

With the last light from the candles slowly fading away, the women had already gathered around the collective firewood to start the preparations for the coming feast. There wasn’t much sleep that night; I felt excited for the soon to come Pasola and honored I could partake in the celebrations.

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Pigs and dogs are smoked with burning straw in one of the numerous fires lit in the yards of Wainyapu

The day has finally come. With the sun rising above the grass roofs, dozens of fires arise in the yards and the village start bustling in a frisky atmosphere.

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

I’m suddenly drawn by the screams of a pig about to meet his end by the hand of the Rato. It’s supposed to be killed by a single, sharp blow through the heart. It misses. Once. Twice. Again. Among shivering screams, the pig is now spilling blood from the lungs. Patches of blood start soaking the soil, mixing up with the red dye from the betel nuts. A few meters away dogs have their head chopped and chicken their throat cut. It’s a crude scene, but today is all about blood. In the ancient Marapu tradition blood is a symbol of life and rebirth and animal sacrifices play a meaningful role in the daily life of Sumbanese people.

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Before Pasola can begin, each family hands out a chicken to the Rato to read the omens in its entrails. Gods are consulted and, if the signs are right, spears can fly.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

With the crowd now getting louder, horsemen gather in the centre of the village at a yard surrounded by ancient tombstones. Dressed in their best ikat fabric, they perform a last propitiating war dance, collect their spears and head to the battlefield. (Some of the following pictures were taken both in Wainyapu and Ratenggaro, a few days earlier).

Pasola dates back several centuries. Wrapped in legend, its origins are uncertain and talking to people in Kodi, Waigalli and Wainyapu we got slightly different versions that would deserve a whole section by themselves. In an island where tribal skirmishes and headhunting were (and still are..) commonplace, Pasola was probably meant as an all-in-one-day fight, for communities to leave peacefully through the rest of the year.

In the old days, metal tipped spears were thrown at the opponents and fields rapidly turned red by the slaughter. Nowadays, on the order of authorities bamboo spears are blunted at the ends in an attempt to make the quest less dangerous. While this can actually avoid excessive bloodshed, spears still regularly fly among the crowd and, as we were warned twice, a couple of years ago a spectator had his skull passed side to side and died within seconds.

Horseman at Pasola

Horseman at Pasola

We move to a nearby field as riders slowly arrive, their horses also decorated with fanciful garbs in preparation for the battle. They ride bareback and barefoot, moving at a faster pace as the crowd self assemble in a circle surrounding the battleground. Suddenly the Rato responsible for the ritual makes an announcement and the game can start.

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

The clans from Kodi and Bukomani on one end, Wainyapu and Ratenggaro on the other end, divide on the two side of the field and charge forth in circles hurling their spears at the opponents.

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting his opponent

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting a member of the other clan

As the longest lens in my bag was a 85mm, I had reluctantly to stand my feet at the front line to take some decent shots, getting closer and closer to the flying spears as more people were eagerly pressing and shrinking the circle for a better view. Luckily I was in a good spot to witness this warrior screaming victoriously and shaking his spear up in the air after hitting and throwing down the horse his opponent.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

At some point I had to take a break in the shade. Around midday the heat is unbearable, but the warriors seem to take little notice and keep hurling their spears completely fearless. The battle unfolds for several hours. Each clan try a game of baits and faints and sometimes eventually manage to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position.

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

We were warned that Pasola often ends in a riot, with people getting crazy and throwing stones at each other. I didn’t give much credit to those words until I realized the surrounding crowd was holding stones in their hands and swords on their belts. There were only minor wounds that day and the people were growing blood thirsty; it didn’t take long before the crowd erupted in an all-out chaos. Not that I felt like joining this mess, but Andreas, a young villager I had met a few days before, eventually recognized and escorted me in the middle of the mayhem, as to make a favour. The shot above is from the first clash between the two clans.

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

To stop things from getting worse, police charged into the chaos, firing machine guns in the air and scattering the crowd. I felt it was time to go. It didn’t take long for the Rato to give his final speech and Pasola was over. There were no winners and losers in the end. But blood has been shed and the harvest will be bountiful.

After the game horsemen and clan members return to their villages. Peacefully, as nothing had happened; overall, Pasola has more to do with restoring peace than foster aggression.

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

The day ends with a thanksgiving ceremony. We were invited for lunch at the house of the village head. Grateful, we accepted. While being served chopped pork, dog and chicken among the laughter of genuine people, I dwelt upon the day; once overcame the fear of being hit by a flying spear, Pasola is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memento of an ancient culture that doesn’t want to die to the modern world.