Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Crossing to Dili and Lamaleran Lores

I saw Dili city lights on the southern horizon and it was the most beautifully hopeful thing I've ever set my eyes upon.

Because it meant that there would be an end in this torturous crossing from Atauro Island to Dili. It had been one hell of an hour, with two more hours to go and our boat rocking this way and that. For a moment there I thought somebody could have been trying to sell me a religion and I'd have bought three.

My stomach was churning and it took all the concentration I could muster not to think about the rising bile and oh I really should distract myself, aren't I?

The last time I almost felt this sick is probably on our second day of open water dive at Nusa Dua. The boat ride afterwards from Larantuka, Flores to Lewoleba in Lembata Island was very smooth. Flanked by Adonara Island in our left and Solor Island in our right, it was calm and very pleasant.

And the times in Lamalera, the traditional whale hunting village was very pleasant, too. So peaceful and quiet and somehow I missed an eventful afternoon where the wife our host was giving birth downstairs (and ostensibly made some noises--screams, even) and I missed all that. Serene and tranquil, I tell you.

Which was fine by me, as I'm not very keen on being involved with childbirth let alone witnessing one. I just wished I was there to see the father swinging the umbilical cord around. Very vigorously, if I were to believe the reports. They say children who didn't have their umbilical cord swung will be prone to seasickness later in life and when you're living in a subsistence fishing community, you wouldn't want that.

Probably this is the reason why I was feeling queasy at the moment. I'm pretty sure Mom just buried mine and did not have father swung it around.

But speaking back of Lamalera, and the Lembata Island in general is speaking of a treasure trove of stories. Incredible, amusing stories and legends passed from one generation to the next.

Which ranges from the usual superstitions about ghosts ("They're not really dead, you know," the very pregnant host told us the night before. "They continue on living among us, it's just that we can't see them," she added gravely) to the myth about whales and whale hunting ("Whales are indeed buffaloes who returned to the sea, and this is the reason why their meat tastes similar," and "One must be forever careful of what he says at sea, lest the sea metes punishment for one's callous remarks. You know, there was this fellow whom I was told get dragged down by a whale into the deep during the hunt, right after he made false swear...").

I being a devout member of the Reasonable tribe—humored her when she told this but remained skeptical.

The next night, however, after spending the day reading Stephen King's novella, I found I can appreciate the stories more. Them, and some new ones our host (the husband) told us when we were waiting for the 3 am truck convoy to Lewoleba.

He regaled us with local legends of why the people in the next village moved from neighboring small islands to Lembata Island. He said that there was this one island where a village used to be. And they have a big banyan tree in the center where a humongous eel lived. Naturally, this eel eats children and one day, the villagers said enough was enough, they wouldn't let more of their children fall prey to this eel again and so they decided to spear the eel. So brandishing spears, they came to the tree and begun spearing the eel. Writhing, water started pouring off its body and in no time at all the village had sunk to the sea.

At that point the villagers had to set out to another island. Now all that remains of their old island was the banyan tree that stays above water when the tide comes and that was it.

Stories like this reminds me of Melvin Burgess' blog, who travels to the heart of Africa and collected the folk stories they are passing on there. And the stories are—just like Lamaleran legends—magical.

Wouldn't that be interesting, traveling from one village to another and listening to their folk tales and sharing them with the rest of the world?

And yet, there's a part of me that wasn't completely content with that plan—for whoever is willing to undertake that. This part—perhaps rather too practically—asks, what for?

The answer that it's for posterity springs to mind, but again, what for? Even just by looking at our host' face I could see that he doesn't really believe in all that (his disjointed narration is also a giveaway). Surely if the newer generation of the local aren't convinced they won't even pass on their stories to their children? And if they eschew their own tradition, who are we to impose on them to extol the old tales? Won't they be a bit miffed, feeling like they are being forced to remain backward while the rest of the world gets on with the twilight of the gods?

Clearly simple posterity won't do. Another stock answer that we can provide is to use the tales to teach moral. Although what moral can be drawn from spearing a giant eel that sunk an island is anyone's guess. The same can be said to another Lembata legend which told the stories of another island turned inhabitable after it suffered a serious case of slug infestation. This, is after a dog was told to piss off by the then-occupants of the island (see that bit above on disjointed narration for explanation of the lack of details in this story).

But putting moral is almost a sure way spoiling a perfectly good story of wonder into something more narrow-minded. Granted, sometimes the folk tales themselves are pretty moralistic to begin with (some Arabian folk tales sprng to mind), but surely we can let the story stand on its own feet and let the listener be entertained.

In the end, if we are to preserve the stories, probably we should just do it for the sake of the stories themselves. And let the listeners draw the moral, if any, by themselves, too. And if there is no moral to be drawn, the joy of being enthralled by the tales should be able to justify their preservation effort anyway.

Right there and then, I wished I could while away the boat ride by finishing Stephen King's Four After Midnight. It was, of course, impossible enough to extract my Kindle from the inside of my backpack as the deck had too many people and it took all the space I dared occupy just to lay down my shoes, water bottle, and backpack and my own body. Plus, reading will only worsen the seasic—

Oh fuck I can't keep it down now oh god I'm going to puk—

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