Joyce wrote of a man ‘alone, unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life'. ‘Sweaty' would have rounded off the description, for I had chosen to travel on a bicycle, that wild heart beating in everything around me. Anyone exploring Sumba this way must learn to forgo any hope of sticking to plans and learn to embrace the Indonesian concept of ‘Jam Karet' or ‘rubber time'.

Sumbaneese stretch that rubber perhaps more than any of its Indonesian neighbours, the slow pace of life unchanged like that of Bali or Lombok. Indeed much of Sumba feels unchanged; in small part due to the relative lack of visitors, comprised mainly of a steady trickle of tourists, a handful of intrepid surfers, and anthropologists studying the islands unique ‘Marapu' religion. Perhaps this feeling of timelessness, however, is more so the result of a conscious effort by its people to preserve the traditions, religion, and strong cultural identity that it has been home to for thousands of years.

Everywhere you look the island's character is visible. Nestled into hilltops and surrounded by thick vegetation are dotted impressively tall thatched roofs that sit on top of rectangular bamboo homes, originally strategically located as to aid in the defence of the settlement. In the middle of these villages lie large megalithic stone burial tombs, the perfect spot to dry rice in the sun, or, for the many village dogs, an afternoon nap. The villagers wear bright coloured hand woven ‘Ikat' fabric, the colour still procured from natural dyes in many parts of the island. This fabric often holds their ornate ‘Kabeala', or machete, in place on the hip, their handles polished out of buffalo horn or beautiful dark hardwood. Running the blade of his Kabeala gently down his leg one villager proudly showed off the blades sharpness, his leg hair falling off effortlessly.

More practical corrugated iron roofs are becoming increasingly common, however, and while many still farm and travel on horseback, the moped has far surpassed the horse as the islands preferred mode of transport. Mobile phones are ubiquitous even in the most remote rural parts, as are the children's football shirts that seem to permeate into even the most obscure regions of the world. The names ‘Messi' or ‘Ronaldo' a constant reminder of the ever closer union of the world.

Yet despite these modern additions one is still struck by the islands distinct personality, consciously and meticulously maintained by its people.

photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift

A strong sense of community and with it more communal childcare is one striking example of something preciously maintained. On a particularly memorable night time taxi ride I was struck by how normal it was for a mother to enter the (already full) taxi after passing her young children to someone inside. These children would then sit on the laps of strangers for hours on end, with no complaint or moments hesitation from either party. In London a strange look on a bus might be cause for argument, the thought of sitting with a stranger's young child on your lap would be unthinkable. Yet when community is central and interactions so much more frequent and personal, trust is built and sharing in the burden of raising children becomes only natural.

Highly questionable health and safety aside an overcrowded taxi ride on Sumba also served as a reminder of how no seat or inch of roof need go unused when money is scarce. Take a vehicle and double its passenger capacity seemed to be a good rule of thumb. An hour into one journey I was confused by the distant but recurring sound of a man's shout. Seeing my confusion a Catholic missionary seated next to me nudged me, "your friend from earlier" she giggled, "he's on the roof".

Travelling on a bicycle meant each day lead me in unexpected directions. A mapping app that made no distinction between a road and a mountain pass was admittedly partially responsible, but more often it was the people who, seeing a man struggling up a hill, would run over and greet me. One evening I stopped at the top of a particularly challenging hill and took a moment to catch my breath, enjoying in the process the view of a sun-scorched football field bathed in evening light. Flanking the pitch were a number of stone burial tombs carved with the heads of buffalo, there position on the top of a large hill making me think they must have been people of great importance, for the enormous stones would have to have been carried up the hill from a quarry by a large workforce. The by now familiar shouts and greetings of a number of children made me turn around and I was met by a father and his children herding a large number of Buffalo across the pitch, grazing on what little grass was left at the height of the dry season. The kids were drawn to the bike and soon I found myself running them around the field with them perched on the saddle, their legs to small to reach the pedals, a wild grin on their faces, and their siblings in close pursuit. The father took equally as much enjoyment in the bike, completing a number of laps of the pitch himself. While their father stole their fun the kids swapped one leather saddle for another and jumped on the back of the buffalo, at times managing to get all three of them on the back of one. I saw this family a number of times during my time in Sumba, each time noting how much fun it looked like they were having together, the father spending the school holidays playing outdoors with his kids.

I grew to expect to meet a group of kids around every corner, causing mischief with their friends and siblings, climbing trees, riding anything that moves, from a bike with no brakes to a horse with no saddle. I thought of their iron thighs as they raced one another down the beach each evening and of the horses' immense strength to move at such speed through soft sand that slowed me down so frustratingly. The horses were rewarded with a cool down in the rock pools at low tide, cleaned and attended to by their proud owners. They would then ride them home before it got dark, a motley crew of bare-back boy racers. Perhaps one day they would compete in the annual Pasola Festival, where two teams of bareback warriors hurl spears at each other, drawing blood that will keep the spirits happy and ensure a good harvest. Often too much blood is drawn, with deaths of both riders and horses common, although less so recently as the spears have become deliberately (slightly) blunter.

Petu, my host for much of my stay, was a regular competitor in the festival, although I had to find that out from someone else, for he was far too modest. Petu perhaps best summed up what I think of when I read of Joyce's ‘wild heart of life'. When he wasn't charging around on horseback, or surfing one of the islands many dangerous surf spots, you could find him reaching for the spear gun and heading out to catch dinner, all 40 kilos of it. Petu took huge pride in the surf camp he had built himself, beautifully perched on the top of the hill overlooking a turquoise bay, still natural, still drawing in the wildlife.

photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift

The Sumbanese, and more specifically Petu's commitment to and respect for his local community was put in sharp focus one evening. Absent from dinner I commented to a number of other guests that I thought it was strange that Petu, a man clearly endowed with an entrepreneurial talent, hadn't thought to invest in a fridge and stock it with beer. Doing so would mean a steady stream of surfers money and in the process would save his guests the short ride to the local shop each evening. This thought hadn't escaped one guest's mind either, and having already asked Petu, explained this was a deliberate decision that meant the whole area benefitted from the success of the surf camp, with money finding its way to the local shop as well as Petu's pockets. He was happy and content with the money the camp made him, and also happy in the knowledge it bought prosperity to others in the community as well. This struck me as a rare and kind thing.

When I think back on my adventure on Sumba one incident stands out in particularly sharp focus. One morning, accompanied by a number of other travellers, two of them fluent in Bahasa Indonesian, I visited a collection of remote villages with the hope of purchasing a naturally dyed and hand woven Ikat. For much of the more arid Eastern region of Sumba these fabrics are the main source of income and are traded with the more fertile West for food. Depending on the size a single Ikat can take months to complete, and as a result, command a high price. After waiting at the boundary for the village chiefs permission we made our way inside, a few children already excitedly running from their homes to greet us. A structure at the edge of the village stood out as peculiar. It was a small but well constructed wooden cage with a tarpaulin roof, three old water containers at one end sat next to an empty and dirty food bowl. From within the cage emerged an extended hand, and a voice spoke out asking for a cigarette. After chatting with one of the older children in the village, his teeth already falling out and stained red from chewing the mild drug beetle nut, we found out that the man inside the cage was serving a life sentence for murdering a fellow villager with a machete, and had already served fifteen years of this sentence. I met this news with horror, for the cage was not big enough for the man to stand up, let alone move around. This punishment seemed unnecessarily barbaric and I left the village feeling intensely sorry for the old man.

Later that night I found myself alone reflecting on the upsetting incident, and the more I thought about it the more I realised that my initial reaction, that this was cruel and barbaric and in some way ‘backward', was unfair and intensely hypocritical. I thought of the US and the UK extraditing suspected terrorists to black sites, holding them in solitary confinement without trial, force-feeding them when they go on hunger strike, and eventually releasing them fifteen years later with not so much as an apology when it is found they are innocent. I thought of the fact that all of this happens in secret, sanitised, with citizens largely oblivious to what goes on. This man had committed the ultimate crime and murdered a fellow villager. It was decided that he should pay for his crime in a way the village decided was fair and just. Each person in the village must be happy with the punishment and each day be able to walk past him in good conscience knowing justice has been served. Furthermore having him carry out his sentence in the village was not only a way of allowing him to remain in a small way part of village life, but also served as a constant reminder to everyone else of the punishment for turning on one another. How many of us would be happy to walk past the cell of an emaciated inmate of Guantanamo bay each morning and in good conscience go about our day? When I thought critically about this I came to the conclusion that my initial reaction was prejudiced, momentarily allowing myself to judge other actions without scrutinising the actions of those from where I call home. Still, I feel for the man, perhaps overtaken by rage acting in a moment of passion, forced to view the rest of his life through the wooden slats of his cage, the occasional cigarette passed to him by a sympathetic traveller.


photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift

Everyone I met who was exploring Sumba had taken their own lessons from their time on the island. I had come to realise that the physical effort of exploring a new land on a bike is rewarded abundantly in the human interactions and chance encounters that it seems to foster. The same journey in a car or even a motorbike has the appearance of someone with a destination to reach, stifling human interaction. For someone travelling on a bicycle, however, the destination becomes a secondary concern, an air of vulnerability constantly drawing people in, shaping your adventure and taking you in directions you never would have travelled.Willa Cathier, a great explorer, wrote about travelling that ‘One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and holds fast to the days.' I would like to add that one can stack the odds of stumbling across happiness in your favour when exploring the worlds end on two wheels, with nothing but the sound of your own wild heart pounding in your chest for company.

photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift
photo by Stuart Swift