Flores, Nusa Tengerra, Indonesia
The Flores experience starts at the airport in Bali where we board a twin propeller plane and suddenly feel as if we are back in the 1960s. The Lion Air flight has no inflight magazine or Duty Free list but it does have an “Invocation Card”. This lists for passengers of any of seven different faiths the prayers to be said to ensure a safe journey for us all.
A couple of nuns and a tall blue eyed priest are on the flight and remind me of the fact that this island is not Muslim like Java, not Hindu like Bali, but strongly Roman Catholic.
Of course, that’s where it got its name – it has been in the hands of first the Portuguese and then Dutch Jesuit missionaries for a very long time – and it was the Portuguese who gave it the name of Flores.
Let’s be clear about the reason we’re here – its not for the wonderful scenery and the amazing chain of volcanoes to trek up, its not for the tropical beaches or the diving, we’re not even here to hunt the famous Komodo dragons – no, we’ve come to wrong end of the island for that. We are here to hunt down something else entirely… ikat weaving. I’ve long been a fan of Flores ikat, which I’ve bought from shops in Bali. The colours are delicious – deep earthy browns and reds, just my cup of tea and the cotton is heavy and hand spun. I’ve finally got the chance to come to the place it ‘s made.
Maumere airport is tiny and we’re soon through and delivered to the tender mercies of the taxi drivers and guides who are waiting for fresh tourist meat. Its not long before we are nestled firmly and inextricably under the wing of guide Hieronymus (yes, he says, like Bosch) and driver Vincent (de Paul, no doubt)
It is made clear to us that independent travel in Flores is just not for the likes of us. For a start self drive hire cars are out of the question – nobody would let a foreigner loose in their car on these roads. Secondly the public transport is shit. Sorry, let me rephrase that… yes there are extremely cramped and very small minivans, very bad roads, and very slow journeys which, were we 20 years younger and had 3 times as much time (and possibly 3 times less money) we could choose to travel by.
But, (and it’s a Big But) we have only got a week here, we want to get to some pretty remote villages and there are 3 of us. Susi, our Javanese friend from Jogya has come along just for the craic. So we open negotiations and soon realise that we might as well give in to the fact that we are going to have to part with a not insignificant sum to engage these two chaps for the next 5 days.
We next realise that there is only really one road through Flores and we have made the schoolboy error of buying a return ticket to and from the same airport. Never mind… once we get going and experience the state of the roads, the wild standards of the driving and the frequency of the land slides, we are quite happy not to be setting off on an epic journey.
As for the ikat, I am immediately reassured by the number of women I see wearing that beautiful characteristic cloth– worn either slung over one shoulder toga fashion, or bunched up as as sarong skirt. At Maumere market there are plenty to look at, and I keep Hieronymus (our Melanesian Eddie Murphy lookalike guide) occupied while Jim slips off to the textile stall to do a preliminary recce on what’s available and grab a bargain to establish the prices. Susi immediately starts chatting to a lady selling something who comes from Java. This is to be a pattern which is repeated everywhere we go – Susi makes lifelong friends very easily.
Before we can leave town for a few days upcountry, though we need a few supplies – snacks for the journey, mozzie spray for the rooms and what else … what about alcohol? Hieronymus, by now known as Hero, takes Jim down an alleyway to see his mother in law who brews up arak palm wine spirit in her village. He comes back with a big grin and a large 1.5 water bottle full. Cost? about £3.
So well fettled for the days ahead, we set off to the first port of call – Sikka. It’s on the southern coast, white sand, coconut palm trees, a typical bloody paradise. There’s no work here though, only fishing for the men and ikat weaving for the women, so, lovely but maybe not paradise.
In most parts of Flores the women weave their own sarongs to wear. Indeed it is traditionally seen as a pre-requisite for marriage – a boy has to be able to plant enough crops to feed a family and the girl has to be able to ikat and weave to clothe the family.
A few villages though, have gained a reputation for weaving. Maybe the dyestuffs or the cotton plants are plentiful, or the women are particularly good weavers. Sikka village is one of these places, and the guides like to bring their charges here.
The small market place is between the sea shore and a very large Catholic church.
At the market, the women are demonstrating – they spin cotton, tie the ikat,show us the local natural dyes and weave. Even the complete textile novice can’t fail to be impressed, and so I am completely bowled over. A quick walk around the village is rewarded with views of ikat in various stages of production. The red dyed warp threads are hanging on washing lines, the tying is being done with thin but strong strips of palm leaf, the cloth is being woven on back strap looms or the women run out bringing cloth to sell. It’s all I could possibly hope for!
If you know me well enough, and have read enough of my blogs, you will know that you don’t get too far before you will be made to read some technical explanation of how a textile is made. Well that’s the point we’re at here. So look away now if you just want an amusing account of exotic travel.
The ikat they make in Flores (and the neighbouring islands) is warp ikat – that means that it is the warp threads (the lengthways ones) which are ikatted. Ikat means “to bind” in Indonesian and that is the essence of the technique.
The threads used to weave the cloth must first be bought or made. If you’ve got some spare cash you may just go to market and buy some yarn. If not, you will have to start by growing and then picking cotton. It looks like cotton wool with big seeds which have to be taken out. Next it has to be fluffed up with what looks like a little bow, and formed into a roll ready for spinning. It always surprises me how similar textile techniques are in completely different parts of the world. I’ve seen women spinning cotton in Laos, Java and Turkey and its just the same. The cotton may be spun either with a wheel or a spindle to make a nice strong and even thread.
Next, the thread is stretched onto a frame which is half the length of the finished cloth. Bunches of threads are then bound up with little strips of lontar palm. This tied binding acts as a resist to dyes in the same way that wax does in batik. If a tie stays on all the way through it will keep the yarns underneath it white, if it comes off half way through the process, the yarns may be dyed another colour.
The different regions of Flores and even individual villages have their own designs – so women get to learn how to do their patterns without too much head scratching. It’s still pretty tricky to get it right though.
In Sikka and quite a few other places in Flores, the dyes used are plant dyes. Indigo of course and the very commonly used mengkudu (morinda citrifolia) This tree produces a green fir cone shaped fruit which also makes a common remedy for stomach ailments. The roots can be selectively harvested while the tree continues to grow. The bark of the roots is peeled off and then crushed and beaten up into pulp which is then just soaked in water to make a luscious red dye. The addition of various mordants – tannin from other local wood, aluminum from the leaves of the lobah tree (sorry I can’t find out what that is apart from “lobah”) and protein from candle nuts may be added to give various shades of red.
In Java, the small northern coastal town of Lasem became famous for its red dyes and batik cloths were sent there specially to be dyed, possibly because of minerals in the soil and water. There are places in Flores where the red is wonderful too, the ikat around Maumere and Ende is particularly wonderful and the colours are brilliant. The other plant dyes used are mangrove bark (deep brown or black) and mango leaves (pale green). Turmeric is used for yellow.
Well we can’t leave without buying something here, and in fact we end up buying quite a lot. Once you start you just can’t stop (or is that just me?) But if you buy from one woman it seems churlish not to buy from another. The cloths are all so lovely and the women are desperate to sell, so it’s hard to leave somebody out. I try to get some of their names, most of them sound Portuguese but the best of all is Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya who sells me a wonderful cloth with a design of horsemen and cockerels. And she models it so fetchingly for me!