SUMBA | Part One: The King of Karaoke
In 2017 I visited the Indonesian island of Sumba, to learn about their beautiful tradition of hand dyed woven textiles. It was the first time that I had ever travelled alone, and I was equal parts excited and terrified. I had some reservations about going somewhere so remote for my first solo trip, but I was desperate to learn more about the origin of the beautiful handwoven ikats that I had seen all over Indonesia. This was the purpose of my trip, and whilst I learnt a great deal about these beautiful textiles and the amazing women who make them, I also met Yudi, and he is a story in himself.
I experienced many unique and unforgettable moments whilst in Sumba, some snapshots including a bizarre morning spent at the local horse track with a large crowd of very vocal male fans, only to realise that the jockeys that they were so aggressively cheering on were in fact their seven year old sons; meeting amazingly talented women who had never left their half-mile radius village, and being invited to my guide’s family home for tea, to be confronted on entering the living room with his grandmother’s long-dead body (as in seven years long. No I am not kidding), the rest of the family crowded around her watching TV. Never have I felt so removed from the world I know and so fully immersed in the culture of another. The people that I met during the time that I spent there were some of the kindest, most generous and welcoming people that I have ever met, and I will never forget the experience.
I met my guide the way all good horror movies start - I was a female traveller in my early twenties who started chatting to two older local men in a karaoke bar. After dedicating an interesting rendition of ‘Every Breathe You Take’ by The Police to me, which has to be one of the creepiest songs ever written, one of the men, Yudi, informed me that he was in fact on the tourism board of Sumba, and that he would be happy to take me under his wing. I eagerly took him up on the offer, which in hindsight seems like terrible judgement on my part, agreeing to spend the next four days in a car alone with a man I had just met. But Yudi seemed nice, and better than that he had a car, which I was in desperate need of.
This is the moment in the movie where things usually start taking a turn, but my experience could not be more different. Yudi is still one of the kindest strangers that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He spent four days showing me around the remote weaving villages of the local area, driving for hours at a time along difficult and bumpy roads. He took me for dinner every evening so that I wouldn’t have to eat alone, he took me two hours out of town so that I could see his family beach house, his favourite spot on the island, and he taught me things about his home that I would never have had the pleasure of learning otherwise. He told me about the rich and complex traditions of the Marapu religion, where worship centres around one's ancestors and families save for years to afford the mass animal sacrifice that must be performed at funerals (hence the dead grandmother in the living room). He told me of the tension between the developing capital of Waingapu and the local communities, as the textile dealers in town were under scrutiny for exploiting female weavers in the villages and enforcing harsh labour conditions - many women were being paid the equivalent of £60 for ikats that take up to a year to make, which were then being sold on to wealthy Jakartan galleries for ten times as much. He spoke at great length and with enormous amounts of pride about his two daughters, who were around my age and had moved to the main island to study. I could tell how much he missed them.
Beyond my experience of the place itself, the trip had such a lasting impression on me because it allowed a unique opportunity to get to know someone whose life had been so different to mine. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite so memorable if I had experienced it with anyone else, but Yudi is a man of many interesting quirks and hidden talents. He took great joy in co-ercing me into wearing the traditional garments of different villages, and we would then have extensive photoshoots advertising the local sights for him to post on Facebook later that evening (all watermarked with his signature, of course, so that his work could not be stolen). He was determined to show me the island to its fullest, which sometimes meant telling a few white lies to gain access to the more isolated communities - this included, on being denied entry to the oldest village on the island due to the elders’ suspicion that I was American, Yudi fabricating on the spot that I was actually from the World Bank and had come to inspect the holes in their rooves, which they had been complaining of to the local authorities. This led to many long conversations between Yudi and various village members who, between emphatic gestures skywards, would every once in a while would glance over at me as I proceeded to closely inspect the roof and take extensive ‘notes’ (I still feel terrible about this, by the way. I really hope they did eventually get the roof fixed).
One day, we stumbled across a young Jakartan couple having a photoshoot for their upcoming wedding in front of a beautiful sunset, and Yudi managed to get in the background of every single shot with a ‘Visit Sumba’ tourism poster, such was his dedication to the development of the Sumbanese tourism industry. On entering one of the larger villages, all of the local people immediately diverted their eyes and offered their hands to Yudi in a sign of respect. When I asked him why they were doing this, he shrugged nonchalantly and said ‘Oh, I am kind of a big deal here, I am their next King’.
I do not feel that I can ever really do justice to a man who I spent such a short amount of time with but for whom I gained so much admiration and respect. It was one of the most bizarre and incredible experiences of my life, and I feel like I was truly welcomed into communities that have been exploited or ignored by many outsiders who intrude on their quiet lives. I was shown a life to which I did not belong, and I was treated like an old friend. All I can really say is, King Yudi, thank you.