Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Village of the whale hunters

Lembata Island by the prospect of visiting the unique village of Lamalera, where the traditional practice of harpooning whales and dolphins for subsistence still survives. So, on Friday 16 September, after two nights in the 'bustling' port town of Lewoleba (see previous entry), we set off on the four-hour drive to Lamalera, situated on the south coast. Our public transport by 4WD vehicle took us through the mountainous, sparsely populated interior of the island, dotted with small farms and tiny villages of bamboo huts. The surfaced road soon gave way to a rutted, dusty track. As the vehicle passed through settlements and stopped along the way to drop of people and goods, we were met by friendly smiles and waves from women and children.
Boat at sea
Boat at sea

Our car had left at midday, and we arrived in Lamalera in the mid-afternoon. The accomodation in Lamalera is limited to a couple of homestays, and we checked into one of them - the home of Abel Beding and his family. We took a walk around the small seaside village - a cluster of brightly painted brick homes situated on the main street and along the curve of the small bay. On the beach, a picturesque row of palm-thatched shelters housed 40 or so traditional wooden fishing boats. At sunset, three boats returned (empty-handed) and we watched the crew heave the boats up the beach, using logs as rollers. I got chatting to a skipper named Frans, who could speak some English, and we agreed that Rich and I would join his boat on its fishing expedition the following day.
Leaping from boat
Leaping from boat

So on Saturday morning at 7am we accompanied the crew of the boat 'Arnol'. Like roughly half of the 40 or so fishing boats owned by the clans of the village Arnol is a hand-built wooden boat with an outboard engine, and is used for hunting dolphins as well as manta ray and other large fish. The balance of the village fleet are outrigger 'pledang' boats propelled by traditional palm-frond sails instead of engines. These are used for whale hunting.

The international whaling treaty exempts the people of Lamalera from the ban on whale hunting, on the grounds that this is a unique and traditional way of life. They are thus permitted to use only their sail boats for whale hunting, and land around 15 to 20 sperm whales a year. For the rest this subsistence fishing community relies on its catches of manta rays and dolphins. Every part of the whale or dolphin is utilised - the flesh is divided among all the families of the village for eating, the blubber is hung in the sun to release the oil, which is bartered as lamp fuel at the surrounding markets. Bones are used in construction and carved into ornaments.
Traditional village of Lamalera
Traditional village of Lamalera

Visiting Lamalera and accompanying a fishing boat presented a moral challenge to us: of course, we instinctively find the idea of whale and dolphin hunting offensive; yet, staying in the village, meeting the people and seeing how they live, we quickly realised that they were barely eking out a living from this subsistence way of life. As Westeners who live in comfort, consuming huge amounts of natural resources yet staying well removed from our food sources, it would be wrong of us to judge this way of life by our own standards.

Though we were eager to observe the unique hunting methods of Lamalerans, we were secretly hoping that no whales would make an appearance - the thought of a full blown whale hunt was just a little too daunting. Thankfully, no whales had been spotted that morning and the prahus remained firmly ashore; Arnol's crew were on the lookout for dolphins. About two hours into the morning and a good few miles out at sea, we came across a very large pod of dolphins, and the hunt be began.

The technique for hunting dolphins is the same as for whales - the harpooner, youngest and fittest of the crew, stands on a small platform on the bow of the boat, weilding a long bamboo shaft with a barbed metal harpoon tip. When the boat comes within striking distance of an animal, he lunges at it, flinging himself into the water to put his full weight behind the harpoon. More often than not it's a miss; a line is thrown to the harpooner and he scrambles on board looking exhausted. If it's a hit, a second and third harpoon are often needed to secure the animal. Then the long battle to reel it in begins... hit or no hit, the whole process is a labour intensive group effort, requiring each of the eight or so crew members to do their bit at just the right second.

We found the sight of struggling dolphins rather hard to bear, yet the absolute delight and relief of the crew whenever they landed their catch made one realise how much they needed it. At about 2pm, with five dolphins in the boat, the guys called it a day, and we started chugging back to shore. By now the two of us were starving, thirsty, sun-burned and quite traumatised. But instead of coming ashore an hour or so later, it took us another four hours to getb back... the boat engine packed up! The helmsman would really battle to start it (Rich was often asked to pull the chord, as he had an unusually high success rate!), then it would splutter a little and die again. Finally, just before sunset, another boat came out looking for us and towed us back. Phew, what a day! We watched as the old men of the village butchered the dolphins on the beach, sharing out the meat to women from various households.

The following day, Sunday morning, most of the 2,000 or so inhabitants of the village went to church (like Flores, the island is staunchly Catholic) - from the verandah of Abel's place we watched families troop by in their Sunday best: clean sarongs, colourful blouses, the women's long black hair knotted tightly in a high bun. We went for a walk to the west of the village and found a secluded little cove where the snorkeling was excellent. The water was crystal clear and the soft corals covering the dark volcanic rocks seemed more like cold water forms. However, walking back up the hill we discovered that a whole clan of youngsters had been spying on us! They said a shy hello and scattered as we walked up the path. Good thing we hadn't been skinny dipping! After another superb lunch at the homestay, we walked the road along the coast in the opposite direction, and found another beautiful little beach.

On Monday morning, Rich joined the fishermen again while I relaxed, chatted to a few people in the village and went back to the little beach we had discovered the afternoon before. The snorkeling from here was absolutely gorgeous too, but I had to keep a look-out for little spies! In the early afternoon, before the boat came in, I returned to the village beach and sat in the shade of one of the boat sheds with a young man named Thomy. Thomy was teaching himself English and eagerly paged through the Rough Guide, trying to read bits here and there. He was particularly taken with the Glossary section, and we had an amusing English-Indonesian conversation using the glossary as a dictionary. By the end of the afternoon, Rich and I had promised to post him a proper dictionary (which we duly did from Bali when we returned there). No doubt the little book will be passed around and use by all the others like him in the village - bright kids who simply do not have educational opportunities available to them.

That evening we said goodbye to all the friends we had made in Lamalera. We'd been bowled over by the friendliness of the villagers and their decency and inner strength despite the hand-to-mouth existence many of them faced. At 5am the next morning, we boarded a 4WD truck back to Lewoleba, from where we returned to Flores by ferry.

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