Getting here is a production. You must hire a driver from Labuan Bao for the seven hour trek up to Denge, the village where the Wae Rebo people send their children.
The drive skirts cloud forests and immense rice fields, and eventually takes you by a glorious strip of rocky beach, looking out to Mulies Island. It is the kind of place that would have been covered in vacation homes and resort developments in most countries, but here, maize farmers and water buffalo herders put their shacks up on primo beachfront property.
There is a homestay in Denge run by the friendly Blasius Monta, the local schoolmaster and a general sage of Wae Rebo culture, who will put you up on a clean mattress.
In Denge, they eat purple rice, a special variety that commands high prices in the USA, and rather high prices here, too.
We brought fish from the coastline, which Blasius’s wife fried up with cap cay (mixed vegetables) that was heavier on the sweet potato than other things I’d had in Asia. They like sweet potatoes here. She made lombok, tiny and violently crisp green chiles pounded in a mortar and pestle with a bit of kecap (sweet soy sauce Indonesian condiment) and some salt and pepper, giving everything a fresh and potent flavor.
The next day dawned pleasingly blue and clear, and we had what I would discover was the traditional Wae Rebo breakfast: instant noodles mixed with vegetables, served over rice.
Then the hike began — a full three hours of walking, repeated my driver and guide Jimmy, a prospect neither of us was immediately too keen on. Jimmy admitted he’d been to Denge numerous times but had never felt compelled to try making the hike. We had brought lots of water and Fox’s hard candy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the road to Wae Rebo is all upwards, which has made the town — supposedly founded hundreds of years ago by a man named Maru, who tired of wandering — rather pleasingly impregnable.
The way up the Wae Rebo highway is slippery when wet and cuts through what looked to me like rather virgin cloud forest: tree ferns, massive and tacky butterflies, parasitic palms and lots of red mud.
The Wae Rebo people treat this seven kilometer long vertical ascent as a casual little stroll to work, and old men were walking up and down the path, carrying the grass that’s traditionally used to make Manggarai style houses.
These houses are conical and constructed rather ingeniously from bamboo and palms: donors from Jakarta put up the money in 2009 to build a new house, and renovate some of the old ones. Finding the grass for the roof can be difficult, and as they are building a new welcome center house, production is in earnest.
I was told that it was “really expensive” to build traditional style houses these days. This makes sense: the amount of effort and gathering time that must be exerted to produce something so seemingly organic and sprung from the ground is dizzying. Stuff like this is worth remembering when the Western suburbanite longs for a simple palace in some antediluvian jungle: actually, it’s a lot of hard work.
We arrived gasping at the top of the hill and were ushered into the main house, distinguished by a horned pole on the roof.
“They have to bless your camera and tell the spirits you’ve arrived,” Jimmy explained. “Otherwise your pictures won’t come out.”
This seemed practical enough: the 84-year-old patriarch of the clan, Rafeal, came out and spoke with us for a bit. I handed him 20,000 IDR, and he said some words in the local language, which I realized a bit too late were actually a chant. Everyone was friendly.
I walked out the door and discovered an enormous leech between my toes — leeches being part of the fun of cloud forest exploration. I trod on it and it spurted blood on a rock wall of the house’s entryway much to my horror, which I hoped in earnest that no one would notice.
There are 7 traditional houses at Wae Rebo, centered around a round grassy area where one makes offerings to the spirits of ancestors, which can include chickens, pigs, or dogs. Children, dogs, puppies and numerous brassy chickens wander around the yard in all kinds of weather.
“The pigs used to roam free, but now they have to be in one place,” Jimmy found out, when I asked if the locals had a particular taste for “dakhing babi” or “pig meat.”
Unfortunately, it began to rain when we got there and thus our exploration was curtailed, though I did manage to go inside one local woman’s house and greet her mother. I spoke no local language and about five words of Bahasa, and they didn’t speak any English, but we gestured at each other a lot, and they showed me their central fire and their tools. Everyone ate a lot of rice. Everyone ate a lot of taro.
The men were up the hill gathering coffee beans and cacoa pods, which they grow here, as well as macademia nuts and the aforementioned taro and cassava and coconuts — the backbones of any self-respecting tropical diet.
Rice is brought up from Denge, as well as snacks, some clothing items, and whatever other modern accoutrements the Wae Rebo people require. This has led to what seems to be a rather pleasant dual existence for them — up the mountain for tradition and tourists and cool mountain air, down the mountain to the (also pleasant) Denge for school, motorbikes, and even erratic cellphone access.
More tomorrrow. Now, I’m in Ruteng in the mountains for a day or so, before making the long drive to Ende. Ruteng as far as I can tell is muddy and a bit charmless, and very dark at night. Got a ride home from dinner at a small warung from a nice French couple. As one does.