Three Times a Lady

I’d love you to meet my friend Katni. She’s our local guide in the tiny traditional village of Senaru, Lombok Indonesia. Katni is a practicer of the traditional religion of Wetu Telu – literally ‘three times’ in Sasak language. Wetu Telu practitioners are nominally Muslim, but their practices follow more animist beliefs.

©SallyArnold
Senaru Traditional Village, Lombok. Indonesia

In the predominately patriarchal societies in Indonesia, it’s unusual to find a female guide. Katni has establish a women’s guiding association in her village. She explains that when the men in her village work, they give a little of their income to their families to live on, but keep a good percentage for cigarettes, alcohol, and “going to bars to watch woman to dance”; but when women are the breadwinners, all of their income goes to support their families, their children’s education and the community. Katni says she loves sharing her culture and educating younger girls, giving them the confidence to also do this.

Today we have a couple of young trainees tagging along. They are very shy and mostly just observe. Katni was the first female guide in her village, and was criticised when she began “doing a man’s job”; but nowadays she has mothers asking if their daughters can be trained by her, as they can see the positive impact she has made. There are now forty female guides in the association.

A male tour guide enters the village as we arrive – he is an outsider. She scoffs, “He will just say how primitive we are here, and point out that we still live in bamboo huts. We may be primitive, but we are educated too, we know, and can explain our traditions.”

©SallyArnold
Wetu Telu Temple. Senaru Village, Lombok

She first takes us to the village “temple”. To me it looks like a small fenced off garden with a few stones. “We are the guardians of Mt Rinjani.”, she explains; the imposing active volcano that forms the central core of Lombok. “We place offerings here in the temple, and once a year we make special sacrifices at three points on the mountain. We are sensitive to nature. We know when there has been an accident on the mountain, or when a earthquake will come; and we can prepare accordingly. We don’t pray in the mosque, that is reserved only for the religious leaders. We are Muslim, but people say we are not Muslim, but in our hearts we are Muslim. We make offerings in our homes three times a week. The temple is used for bigger ceremonies. She those larges rocks? Thats our stove when we have a big ceremony, hundreds of people arrive, and we cook a big feast for everyone to share. Part of our traditions, we eat pork and drink rice wine. Unlike other Muslims, we believe these things come from God.”

It’s during Ramadan on the day of our visit, but Katni is not fasting. “Only the religious leaders fast here, and they only fast for three days during Ramadan – on the first day, in the middle and the last day.” One of the young trainees wears a headscarf, and seems a little uncomfortable with some of Katni’s explanations. She explains that some here are learning how to do things “properly”, and that she is fasting, and prays five times a day.

We move into the village and notice how clean it is compared to outside. There is no plastic laying about the neat rows of bamboo and thatch houses. The newer houses have cement foundations, but Katni says that causes problems with rheumatism for the older folk. The more traditional houses have floors made of mud and cow dung. She slides open a woven bamboo door revealing a large smokey, light filtered room. The doorway is very low, and we must bend down to enter. It’s low for Katni too. She says they are deliberately low to show respect as we enter.

Dust motes float on the light beams, that squeeze in thought the bamboo cracks. There are no windows. As our eyes grow accustom to the dimness, we can make out a small room and platform towards the ceiling with a ladder leading up to it. “That’s not a room for sleeping.” says Katni, “That’s were we put our offerings. We sleep on these two beds, or mats on the floor. The bed near the door is for the parents, the small bed on the far corner of the room is for the girls. That’s so they don’t go out at night and meet their boyfriends. We are several families living together in this one big room, so we mostly sleep on the floor ‘like rabbits’. This other platform at the moment is just for storage, but its true function is the honeymoon bed. When a couple are married in our tradition, they don’t go away on honeymoon like you do, the woman moves into the man’s home, and they sleep on this bed, surrounded by all the extended family. Yes, they just sleep.” she winks, “We know it’s their honeymoon, so we leave them alone during the daytime.” she winks again.

The walls and ceiling are blacked from the cooking smoke of the open fireplace in the corner as there is no chimney. She explains that she loves leaning from others too, as well as sharing her own culture. She says that she’s learnt that the smokey atmosphere of the homes can be detrimental to babies sensitive lungs and eyes, and she now encourages mothers in the village to make hammocks outside during the day for the babies, so they aren’t exposed to smoke.

©SallyArnold
“Beluga”. Senaru Village, Lombok

We move outside again, and Katni shows us the beluga, a roofed bamboo platform with many functions. This is the place where young men sleep, the guest room, the meeting room, and the place were rituals are performed. It’s divided into two sections – a place for “life rituals”, and “death rituals”. One beluga is shared between two homes, except the head family – as they are a noble family, they have one. “My mother gave birth to fourteen children on this platform – no doctors or hospital, just a local midwife. We surround it with leaves to give the mothers some privacy. I also had my tooth filling here.” I am familiar with the tooth filing, as it’s a custom performed in Hindu Bali. It’s a similar ritual here, but is performed as part of the wedding ceremony. “You are lucky, you get a ring on your wedding day – we get pain.” she says, dragging an imaginary file across her mouth. She says it still hurts when she eats hot or cold food.

We continue through the village and Katni points out a very young mother – She’s fifteen, and has two children. “I hope by empowering girls in the village, and improving education, there will be less young mothers, its too young”. Later she points out a newlywed couple, the girl has just left primary school, and the boy is not much older. The young girl already looks tired. Katni shakes her head.

©SallyArnold
Betel Nut chewer and family. Senaru, Lombok

Katni then stops by an old woman with the telltale reddened mouth of a betel nut chewer. She shows my group the Areca nut “pinang”, the betel leaf “sirih”, and a small bag of slaked lime, made from crushed coral. Betel nut is a mild, but addictive stimulant widely chewed in South East Asia. Here in Senaru village they also mix it with tobacco to give it an extra kick. Katni explains with the widening eyes of someone also addicted, that here in the village you chew it before breakfast to start your day. She rolls a wad and offers it around. I berate her for pushing drugs to my group, winking as I do so. I mention some of betel nut’s negative aspects for long term users, including the serious risk of mouth cancer. I hope she will take this information and pass it around the village, but habits can be hard to change.

©SallyArnold
Katni Showes my group a traditional ‘calander’.
©SallyArnold
Pointsettia Dolls.

Continuing into the garden, Katni shows us a poinsettia plant. “This is our calendar. When the flowers are green, its the wet season, when they are red it’s the dry season. If there’s still a bit of the other colour we know we have a few weeks to go. We plant and harvest our crops according to this. “When I was little these was my dolls.” she says pointing to the inmost of the flowers – they look like little people with big mouths. We are then shown many other plants and are offered a taste of cocoa fruit, turmeric and ginger roots, among others.

As we meander down the hill, passing cows, goats and chickens; she continues to explain daily life in the village, and the good and bad of modern influence. She points out the asbestos roofing of the newer brick houses. “We didn’t know that it’s dangerous, It’s cheap, that’s why we use it. These modern homes are cheaper to build than our traditional ones – we can’t get the wood anymore. But we are much safer in bamboo homes during an earthquake they just dance.” she says wiggling, “In a brick home you have to go outside, or you may never leave.”

The light begins to fade, and soon the muddy path opens again to the asphalted road. We are transported back to the modern world. Katni thanks us for supporting her village and says that some of her guiding fee will be used to further train girls and support her village. We leave with positive hopes for their future, that Katni’s charm and good humour will encourage her community to take only the good things from our modern mixed up world.

If you are ever in Lombok, I urge you to meet Kani in person. Support her tours and her village. She can be contacted on:
+62-81-7572-3315 or rinjaniwomenguide@gmail.com 
www.rinjaniwomenadventure.com

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Return If Possible

I haven’t seen my friend Robbi Sappingi for a number of years, and our friend status on Facebook, is still “pending” after my account was hacked several years ago (we were FB friends previously). Unfortunately, our status will be forever “pending” as Robbi was tragically killed in the 6.0 earthquake that hit Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia yesterday 5 June 2105. Robbi was 30 years old, and a mountain guide on “The Mountain”, Mt Kinabalu – The physical and spiritual home for the Dusun people of Kiau, a small close-knit community in Sabah, Borneo. The newspaper reports I have read say he died from head injuries sustained in the earthquake. He had been helping a climber when he was injured and encouraged them to leave him alone and climb to safety. A hero to the end, always putting others before himself.

I first met Robbi when he was a cheeky schoolboy, when I began working in Borneo, regularly taking groups to climb the mountain. His Father, Sapinggi, was our head mountain guide. Part of our itinerary, we would spend a night in the village of Kiau, getting to know the locals and our guides before we climbed the mountain. We stayed in the guesthouse of the local church, and ate dinner in a local home, which inevitable turned into “the party”. Home brewed rice wine is a part of the culture of welcoming guests in this remote mountain village. It was a wonderful bonding experience for our groups, as we had all usually just met each other the day before in Kota Kinabalu. We travelled a couple of hours by minivans from the city, to be dispatched on the side of the road ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and met by an open truck to transport us over the bumpy, windy mountain road to the cool and beautiful elevated village of Kiau.

Kiau
Kiau village near Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Most of the group would be a little nervous, as it can be a bit confronting being thrown headfirst into an unfamiliar culture, and the imposing view of the majestic mountain reminded us that we were going to be climbing that sucker in a couple of days. “Don’t think about the mountain” Sappingi would always remind us. “The mountain is the mountain, tomorrow is tomorrow”. The people of Kiau always made us feel welcome. After a delicious home cooked dinner of local mountain fare, including the most aromatic mountain rice I have ever eaten, we would begin the introductions. This was a ceremonial raising of glasses of rice wine, followed be a formal introduction from each person present. The wine loosened tongues and made us all more relaxed. If they were not already there, Robbi and his friends would turn up to join the party, then it really got lively. Out came the guitars, the plastic bottle “drums” and spoon drumsticks. The music would be turned up loud, and the dancing would begin. A talented bunch, I often commented that they should be entrants on “Malaysian Idol”, talent show. The stilted wooden homes would often shake and we’d all be told to get off the dance floor. Unfortunately, getting off the dance floor didn’t stop the shaking yesterday when the earthquake struck.

Robbie Sappingi
Robbi Sappingi (on left in black) entertaining my group.

A couple of days later, sobered up, we would begin our climb from Mt Kinabalu National Park at about 8am. I have climbed thirty tree times over the years I worked there, not many compared to the guides who live there. The mountain is 4,095 m high, and takes two days to climb, staying overnight in mountain huts. On my first trip Robbi was on school holidays and was one of our porters, his father, Sappingi, was our guide. After he left school, Robbi began guiding full time, and more often than not, I climbed with Robbi as one of our guides. The first day is a steep 7km climb to Laban Rata, the mountain hut. It’s not too difficult for someone with good fitness, and is a beautiful mountain walk though all kinds of unique vegetation and cloud forest. The worlds tallest moss and the worlds smallest rhododendron grow here, as well as all kinds of exotic orchids and giant pitcher plants. The walk would usually take a leisurely 6-8 hours, along which Robbi would charm and entertain our groups. He always had a naughty smile, a glint in his eye and a story to tell. Funny and charming.

The second day of the climb is more difficult and this is where our guides, including Robbi would really shine. We would rise at 2am to climb the short, but difficult path to the summit for sunrise, then return all the way to the bottom of the mountain. It was slow going as the altitude would often affect my groups as we would pull ourselves up by ropes on the sheer granite paths. It was cold, often below 0ºC, and usually damp or drizzling. Robbi would always help the slower climbers, holding their hands, pulling them up, encouraging them, and sharing a joke. If someone was too cold he would take off his gloves or coat to share, selflessly always putting others first. Some of my guest would have never have made the climb without Robbi’s help.

Sunrise at Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
Sunrise at Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

The Kiau Dusun are predominantly Roman Catholic, but still have spiritual connections to the mountain where former animist beliefs still linger. Every year they still perform a ritual sacrifice of white chickens on the mountain to appease the spirits, just in case. Borneo is not part of “the ring of fire”, that shakes up many surrounding nations on the Pacific rim, and very few have experienced even a mild earthquake before, so it was shocking and devastating for the small community.

The mountain guides here are true everyday heroes. As I write this many are still trapped on the mountain, as it is still too dangerous to climb down, and visibility is too poor for helicopters. But I’m sure all the guides are helping and supporting the climbers before they think of themselves. I hope the village can be repaired and rebuilt soon. My deepest condolences go to Robbi’s family, friends and community. And to my funny and charming young friend, I say RIP – Return if possible.