Travel Thru’ The Lens: Penti Festival, Flores


Ever wondered how a National Geographic Photojournalist is like out on an assignment? Well I did fantasize it and my wish was fulfilled somewhat with an invite from National Geographic Indonesia to follow them on a trip up the Mbeliling Mountain, Manggarai, to visit Wae Rebo Village for their Penti Festival.

Just to give you a heads up, here’s what says about Wae Rebo.

“Wae Rebo is an old Manggaraian village, situated in pleasant, isolated mountain scenery. The village offers visitors a unique opportunity to see authentic Manggarai housing and to experience the everyday life of the local community. In the village of Wae Rebo, visitors can see mbaru niang – traditional, circular cone-shaped houses with very unique architecture. Nowadays, it is still a place to hold meetings, rituals and Sunday-morning prayers together.

The circular, cone-shaped buildings were all rebuilt in a traditional way. In contrast today’s rectangular buildings, the hearth is situated in the center of the house. The massive roof, made out of palm fiber, is supported by a central wooden pole. The ceremonial house – differing in size from the other buildings – is the place where sacred heirloom drums and gongs are stored, and where different ceremonies and rituals are held. This house is a communal building, gathering eight families who are descended from a common ancestor under its huge roof. Its structure symbolizes the unity of the clan, with the sacred drums considered the clan’s medium to communicate with the ancestors.

When you visit Wae Rebo, you will not only see the authentic Manggaraian housing, but also get an opportunity to experience the daily life of the local people. Most of the people work in their gardens from early morning until dawn, busy with harvesting coffee and processing the beans. Even though weaving is not a major activity in Wae Rebo, you may encounter some women weaving traditional songket cloth. Visitors are welcome to spend the night in the mbaru niang, and to socialize and dine with the Wae Rebo community. You will sleep on a tikar, a woven mat made out of pandanus leaf, in the mbaru niang, and get a taste of how life used to be when the extended families still lived their lives under one roof.”

The introduction may be short and sweet but the experience in getting there is another story altogether. That’s why I took some effort to pen this blog 2 months plus after the trip itself..and judging by the effort to get there, the logistics itself is anything but a walk in the park or the jungle in this case.

First of all we got ourselves to Bali from Singapore. We used the internal flights to get to Flores airport (more commonly known as the Komodo airport). From there we took a 8 hour van ride through the countryside towards the southern coast of Flores Island and rest at the Wae Rebo Eco Lodge which is at the foot of the Mbeliling Mountain range. It is a simple accommodation but one that has at least some creature comfort for those who are used to 2-3 star hotels. The lights are on till 10pm to conserve petrol for the electric generator.

And so we went up the mountain the next morning. Only 9km they say…take your time they say… For one who struggled with a busted, reconstructed right knee, 9km is a torture. I would have thought going up Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan was probably tough but given that the mountain trek is now interrupted with road construction by the local people, the going was particularly tough with loose rocks and soil. Good thing it lasted about 1/3 of the way, with the rest of the way under the canopy of beautiful rainforest trees. It also helped that the weather is cooling to cold in some parts but certain parts of the climb, I really have to muscle up mentally to plant my foot forward to the point my guide have to say “take 15 steps, rest 10 seconds…repeat”. It has come to that.

But the effort is worth it, all the more sweet when you get to see the village from the entrance point, above the village with rolling clouds sweeping through the mountain top. A view you would smile no matter what physical condition you are in.

First we have to announce our arrival. At the entrance, we have to knock a sort of musical instrument made of bamboo. Then we proceeded down the slope towards the village and meet up with the village chief and the elders. After a few pleasantries we are welcomed to the village and was told to feel at home…and feel at home was I! The children played around you as though they know you. As we went inside the Mbaru Niang, we are presented with coffee brewed from locally grown coffee beans. For coffee lovers, this is heaven on earth. I am not a kopi-o lover but the visit made me one (until I come back and tasted the Singapore version, I am back to normal kopitiam kopi siew dai again). The coffee is fresh, aromatic and give you that perk in energy, one that I had, in all places, Fremantle market in Perth.

We all shared a shared a Mbaru Niang with no rooms so we don’t really have much privacy. Well if you have served in the Army, privacy is really a privilege so I was okay about it. Till this day I still remember the ‘bed’ I have used. We all slept on the floor with a straw mattress which is padded. Although we do not have Simmons spring mattress, the bed was really comfortable.

The Penti Festival officially started the night we arrived. There was a gathering of the villagers at the main house with the village chief and elders. There was a sort of service, much like one in Church that started with music and then teachings and exhortations. What is the Penti Festival? The answer again from Florestourism

“Penti is one of the major ceremonies in the Manggarai district. It is a thanksgiving celebration for the past year’s harvest and an expression of hope for a prosperous, new agricultural year. The event is filled with series of ancient rituals that usually last for one full day and night. The celebration is of such huge communal importance that all village members, even the ones living outside the village, should join these festivities. Penti used to be an annual event closely related to the agricultural cycle.”

The next day, we woke up and we gathered around the main house again. After the ‘service’, two groups of villagers set out to two holy alters placed outside the village. This is to appease and give thanks to the spirits and also to invite the spirits to join in the festivities too. At these altars, some of the male villagers changed into warrior garb for the Caci dance or the Caci Whip Fighting. The two groups would proceed back to the main house to conduct the Caci ritual.

Again from Florestourism

“Caci is played out by two male adversaries, with one of them usually coming from another village to compete. Spectators support their favorite party by cheerfully shouting out their encouragement, making it a very lively event. Caci equipment, consisting of a whip, a shield, masks, and sticks, bursts with symbolism: the aggressor’s whip is made out of rattan, with a leather-covered handle. It symbolizes male, the phallic element, the father, and the sky. The defender’s round shield represents the female, the womb, and the earth. It is usually made out of bamboo, rattan, and covered with buffalo hide. As these meanings suggest, the male and the female elements are united whenever the whip hits the shield – symbolizing a  sexual unity as an essential premise in giving live. The players’ heads are covered with a wooden or leather mask wrapped with cloth and goat hair that hangs down at the back. The two horns of the mask represent the strength of the water buffalo. For additional protection from the ashes of the whip, the defender holds a stick in his left hand.

While fighting, the men wear a traditional songket (woven cloth) over a pair of regular pants. A belt of bells worn on the hip and a string of bells strapped on the ankles create a peculiar sound. The upper body remains bare and uncovered, leaving it exposed to the whips’ lashes.

After a starting signal, the whip and shield duel begins. The fighters shuffle their feet and raise spectators’ tension by running back and forth towards each other. The aggressor tries to hit his opponent’s body with the whip. However being hit does not automatically mean losing the game – it is more important which part of the body is hit in deciding the winner. A hit in the face or on the head means losing the game; a hit on the back, though, is a good sign, promising that next year’s harvest will be prosperous. The roles of aggressor and defender are reversed after every whip strike, and, after four trials, a new pair of opponents will take their chance. Even though it is a playful event, caci also has a sacrificial function: the blood that is shed from the wounds caused by the whips is an offering to the ancestors, who, in return, will ensure the fertility of the land.”

The Caci fight itself provided a very colourful subject in the festivities. The songket, head dress, bells and ‘weapons’ make for an interesting shots more so when they are really action packed. For this I was glad with the help of the local “porters”, my Nikon D700 with the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 lens was handy for such events. I did bring along the Sony RX10 Mark 2 that performed well too.  After a day of shooting with George Tay (Beer Supplier) and Yunaidi Joepoet (NGI reporter) dressing up as Caci warriors, it was time to rest.

First of all, being on top of the mountain (or close to the top) means the sun can be merciless and the wind can be chilly. So you can imagine splashing cold cold mountain water on your body for a bath, to wash away the sweat from the day. It was both refreshing and shivering cold all at once. After a jolt of energy comes the crash…with the ritual music playing from the main house floating in the background. Sleep was blissful.

Tried to wake up early to catch the sunrise but couldn’t and was woken up by the activities within the house. The gang has already started the preparation to climb down the hill. After some goodbyes, we are off again. This time, my lungs got used to the altitude so it was not as bad. What did create a lot of pain are the rocks as the knees are taking a beating, absorbing the shock as we go downhill. Boy I was glad to see the van at the end of the mountain trail.

How did we end the trip? A beautiful sunset shoot from a bar situated right on top of the cliff overlooking the harbour. What an experience!


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