Ende and Wolotopo: Never Mind the House Heart

viewfromwolotopo copy
The view from Wolotopo.

Ende is rife with small annoyances and miserably slow Internet connections, but has managed to endear itself to me as I wobble on the back of a scooter with the charming guide Sri. I visit Vincent the travel guide’s home with yellow-washed walls and the English teaching class, and the dog and five puppies wandering around.

Photos from Europe on the walls of a younger Vincent in 1990s clothing, mugging at European landmarks. I wonder how people go merrily from Eurotrips to a rather raggedy Ende backyard, but the answer probably is that they want to, are drawn inexorably back. You stare at the Louvre and then you go home and make something of yourself in familiar turf.

Ende Beach a flawless black-sand marvel, without a single soul upon it, the sort of place that would been packaged, groomed, and locked up behind a large fence in most more civilized locales. Here, it’s crabs and a man drawing on a cigarette, who has tied up his cow to one of the smallish beach-trees, allowing it to browse on grass from the road.

“Sometimes people come here to swim,” says Sri. “But only in the afternoon,” she added, as if the horrifying traffic of 15 kids with lunchboxes after school would render the place totally ruined.

One of Ende's black-sand beaches.
One of Ende’s black-sand beaches.

The Great White-esque developers of Dubai and Australia have not rendered Ende an overpriced playground with a Sandals resort yet. I am hoping it will take a few years before stores selling inflatable alligators and obscene wooden carvings open up, before families with irate children drag them on “cultural learning experiences,” before the first McDonalds displays its golden arches to a curious public. This will take time. But it is maybe inevitable.

Wolotopo is an almost Mediterranean candy-colored marvel, a bunch of brightly painted cement and steel roof houses tumbling off the side of a Jurassic-Park esque green mountain. The people here are shockingly friendly and the kids follow you around and marvel at your being a foreigner, pointing out things and shouting at you delightedly in Bahasa.

We walk to a Banyan tree that to the locals is apparently ageless, where someone is browsing a pig near the pastel-tiled graves of ancestors, recent and not-so-recent. A man with numerous tattoos plays guitar on top of the Stonehenge-esque tomb of one of Wolotopo’s founding relatives, and waves languidly at us in the heat — Saturday among the ghosts, so it goes.

Rumah adat - old house - in Wolotopo.
Rumah adat – old house – in Wolotopo.

People come out of their houses and ask me what my name is in their best English, calling over husbands, grandparents, and mostly ambulatory children to feast their eyes on this, all in a sense of extreme benevolence. They congratulate me on being Very Beautiful and Still Young.

They are extremely pleased that unlike the other young white female tourists they see, I’m not dragging from an imported Lucky Strike. The population is almost uniformly exceptionally attractive: fabulous complexions, interesting tattoos, and in excellent physical shape. Walking up all those damned hills. That’s why the Swiss like Flores, I bet.

The Wolotopo house is populated by nine generations of wiry and extremely loud people, who compete with one another to switch on the lights and show me things, as I step over one and another sleeping relation, chicken, and confused puppy on my way into the house.

Decorative breasts. Also a symbol of friendship.
Decorative breasts. Also a symbol of friendship. The joined-hands people, not the breasts.

The famous old house here is meant to symbolize a human body in the most visceral of fashions: the entryway is a carved wooden vulva, and a curious wooden object meant to signify the important heart and liver of the community sits in the center of the house. I bang my head upon the scared Community Heart and am immediately horrified: this is greeted with supreme disinterest, and maybe a titter or two. The Wolotopo people are many things, but they do not stand upon ceremony. A guest can clock their head against a stray sacred ceremonial organ without arousing anger.

They are cooking a huge pot of pork up and eating it with rice over a curious hearth composed of six molded bumps of rock, which can contain various configurations of pots. The kids are outside doing cut and paper crafts, and there’s a television on the porch showing an episode of Wipeout.

spinningwomanwolotopo copyOne woman is weaving some goldenrod colored rope, and I ask if I can take her picture. She bids me to wait and then quickly sweeps up her hair into a more appealing form. OK, snap the thing now, she smiles at me, her teeth stained bright red with betel nut. I do. I show it to her. As is always the case, she laughs uproariously.

Their wooden house looks out over the sea and back to Ende, which is situated on a peninsula in between two large volcanic mounts. They never see whales here, they say, but they like to sit and look out upon the view while they drink coffee and tea, and pull from their cigarettes, and sit and philosophically chew their betel nut. It is stirring for the soul.

Inside the "old house" in Wolotopo.
Inside the “old house” in Wolotopo.

Anyone would like to sit and look out upon this view, with the emerald green volcanic mountains, the perfectly clear sky, and the electric blue water. That this view has been accorded to the earnest tumble of humanity that is the Wolotopo people and not some miserable Jakarta super-executive with a massage therapist and a Blackberry earpiece is a small, pleasant miracle in a world rife with injustice.

Don't nobody not like no sate.
Don’t nobody not like no sate.

We have lunch at an excellent restaurant that serves coconut milk goat soup, sambal, bean sprouts, and goat sate with dark peanut sauce. The food is excellent, and I would never have found it myself. Sri regards my Flores People and Culture book with extreme interest, and I resolve to figure out a way to have a copy of the volume sent to her. It is nice to find kindred nerdy spirits in foreign lands, who want to learn about the motifs of sacred houses for reasons that go no deeper than mere curiosity.

We walk across the newly renovated Ende Central Park, where an enormous banyan tree plays host to a huge colony of aggressive and large red ants. I marvel at these for a minute, then we discover the Ikat museum is closed, although a family of goats under the traditional wooden structure provides a moment of amusement.

Then off to the harbor, where Sri briefly chats with a shirtless and bored looking sailor. “Ah, they’re headed to Makassar to do some trading,” she says. A sentence from the time of Wallace.

Green coffee beans.
Green coffee beans.

The coffee lady at the water-side market (sunbleached and painted blue, like most things here) carefully scoops out ground coffee from the bag with a plastic cup, then weights it out in another plastic cup. The woman selling chilis across from her booms in Bahasa to Sri, and the coffee lady nods emphatically.

“What was that all about?” I ask, standing like a rather pale bump in a log between two eminent figures of the Ende wholesale market. “They are very happy that you don’t smoke, not like the other tourists. Smoking is bad.”


The women all nod emphatically. They appear to be harboring dark memories of slatternly European tourists wandering through the market in flip-flops and string bikinis and smoking Marlboros, or something like that. Anyway I am glad I have won their approval.

The day in Ende has become something like a long and drawn out foreign PSA on tobacco. I am once again glad I never succumbed to the quotidian delights of American Spirits rollies when all the cool kids were — because I am a sick spendthrift and not because I harbor any deep moral panic about smoking, if we are to be truthful.

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