The Final Exam

Within minutes of arriving, an old man was leading me by the hand up the steep mountain path.

I walked out of the dark into the large, open-air communal area lit by a generator and a few swinging lights. Inside, the mother of all vagabonding challenges was awaiting me. Three years of travel have prepared me for this moment — this final exam I knew would be stressful but I was determined to pass…

I pretty much walked into an ambush.

Probably 500+ people turned to look in my direction, and almost all activities abruptly came to a halt. Had there been a jukebox, it would have stopped automatically, too. My mouth hung open just as wide as the villagers’ did — the surprise was mutual!

While in Alor, my new friends Roy and Lina told me about a traditional ceremony taking place in their small village on Adonara, an island right at the end of Flores and well off the normal tourist path. They invited me to come stay with their family and witness the ceremony to christen a new house, something not very many Western travelers ever get to see. The last ceremony of this sort was over three years ago.

I would have been insane not to accept. So before long I was sitting on a giant Pelni ship overloaded with people, animals, and vehicles steaming west toward one of the most unique-and-unusual experiences in all my travels.

The ride took around eight hours, and I stood on the starboard bow watching off to our right as a very ominous volcano dominated the horizon. It blew huge puffs of ash and smoke thousands of meters into the air.  I think it may have been Gunung Ile Api (Fire Mountain) but am not sure. Whatever its name, this was the most active volcano I’ve seen to date; it was obviously pissed off. Lina, having taken the Pelni ride many times, said that she had never seen that before.

I was happy as we put a little distance between ourselves and the volcano’s potential to do God knows what.

Pelni is a huge shipping company in Indonesia; their boats make two-week circuits all over Indonesia. Pelni is a cheap option to get someplace if you happen to be in the right place at the right time to catch one of their massive ships. Pelni boats are like miniature cruise ships minus the casinos and any other sign of luxury.

Over the last three months, I have taken many boat rides and watched as locals always throw their rubbish into the sea; it’s a regular thing here in Southeast Asia. However, I was horrified to watch the actual Pelni staff carefully collect rubbish in large, black garbage bags — and rather than keep them until the next port — nonchalantly toss bag after bag into the ocean. The staff of a major company that sails 365 days a year putting bagged trash into the sea — unbelievable. I was the only Western traveler aboard, and everyone else didn’t seem to care. Very sad, indeed.

I took two days of boats, buses, and motorcycles to get to the small village of Lamahelan, a settlement sprawled up the steep, narrow path on the dormant volcano, Ile Boleng. Only a tiny trickle of travelers come to Waiwerang, the closest thing to a real town on the island, and none have a reason to go up Ile Boleng.

Needless to say, I received quite a lot of attention when I came strolling into the village wearing a backpack and a smile. The people here — unlike in Java — have very dark skin, so my white skin was glowing like a beacon.  Lucky for me, I had Roy and Lina on each flank, so I was in good company.

I dropped my rucksack and apparently was just in time for the festivities as Lina’s warm-hearted Bapak (father) was leading me up the path with a beaming smile on his face. It still amazes me at how quickly the family here accepted me. There were no questions, no formalities, and in only a few minutes I had a room (with no door) and was being treated as one of their own.

But first, to become one of their own, I had to pass my test.

At the ceremony I was led to a long table of old men (the women and men sit separately) and introduced to everyone. Ceremony is a stretch — there were no dancing, traditional music, speeches, etc. This was pretty much just a family reunion, and had the same atmosphere as a casual cookout at home.

There were literally over 300 eyes watching me at all times as I took a seat and did my best to keep cool. And I had to hide the bulging vein on my forehead — it was a dead giveaway of my stress levels. I gave my best effort to make small talk in Bahasa Indonesia, but only a few people here speak it. Instead, they speak Bahasa Adonara — their own dialect that is completely different.

Sucker punch. So much for my attempts at communication over the next few days beyond pointing and grunting like a caveman.

A tidbit of world culture that you won’t learn from books is that there are two things in the world which bring men together, no matter the race or language: drinking and smoking.

We did a lot during my time there.

A toothless man across the table took a handful of loose tobacco set out in communal bowls and stuffed it into a woody, dried out palm leaf. He rolled them into what looked like a big, very crude blunt. He lit the thing and passed it around the table. I knew I had little choice (the equivalent would be like sitting with a circle of old Native Americans and refusing to take the peace pipe), so I took a deep drag and let the hot, unfiltered smoke fill my throat.

When I blew it out, I could hear chatter and laughter up and down the rows of tables, and even out of the kitchen where women had heads hanging out of every opening to watch me — their mouths and teeth were stained bright red from chewing betel nut. Despite my lungs declaring a state of emergency, the first test was passed without even a single cough.

Later, a young boy came around with a bottle of mokay, the local palm wine that every man in the village produces and sells. Mokay is pretty much the only export and method of producing an income here. Not to be confused with arak, the stuff made from rice that has killed nearly 30 travelers here in the last two months, mokay is made by fermenting the sap from a type of palm tree. The full-proof stuff burns with a blue flame when you light it on fire.

In short, it’s moonshine.

There was only one communal glass to go around, so I watched as man after man downed the fiery stuff without even a blink. Suddenly it was my turn. I wondered if I was still being observed by everyone present but didn’t dare glance around to check. When I shifted to take the glass, my wobbly, plastic chair buckled a little and threatened to turn over. There were 300 audible gasps…

Yep, they were still watching.

Every man who finds himself in a sticky social situation like this one should just remember this mantra: WWJWD.

What would John Wayne do?

Well, pilgrim, he would drink up.

I locked my eyes with the man across the table with me, said salamat minum, Bapak (cheers, Father), gave a nod, and raised the sticky glass to my lips. I was hoping the alcohol was strong enough to kill the germs and my anxiety. I drank in two big gulps and handed it back to the boy, never breaking eye contact. I maintained my best whiskey face as the heat erupted through my chest. I said a silent promise to my liver that if it would process well and keep me from going blind tonight, I would behave myself for the rest of my life.

Test number two, passed.

I learned that we were not allowed to eat until all the meat that has been butchered earlier was passed out. It was lying on banana leaves in big pits behind me. This meant sitting there smoking and not eating until roughly 2 a.m.

How do these people do it? They’re usually up around sunrise!

When I learned that I would be in this exact situation for the next eight hours, give or take, I nearly snapped and went running off into the dark jungle screaming like a madman. But Roy’s comforting attempts at speaking English brought me back to my senses.

Because we would not be eating for so long, we were brought plain rice and a bowl of small, silvery dried fish about the size of minnows. I had no idea what the protocols were here, so I played it safe by just taking a little rice. Just like with grandmothers in the West, eating only a little wasn’t going to cut it here, so I was given a double portion. And a heaping, dirty handful of the dried fish on top my rice.

After waiting for the eldest at the table to fill his bowl and begin eating and saying salamat makan (bon appetite) all around, I took a big mouthful. The fish are heavily salted with sea salt made in the village and are completely intact. You barely notice the small bones and eyes as you eat, but they do taste extremely fishy.

I did my best to clean my plate, and to my horror, an old man filled it right back up again with a dirty left hand. I guess the normal protocol of don’t-use-your-left-hand-for-anything-but-the-toilet doesn’t apply here. Or at least I hope it doesn’t. Again, I downed the last of the crunchy fish heads and this time wisely sat my bowl out of reach so it couldn’t be refilled!

Eating test, passed.

By the end of the night, I had become pretty well accepted; I chatted with the few men that could understand my limited Bahasa Indonesia. Every now and then Lina came through to make sure I was still doing okay and hadn’t crawled under the table to lie in fetal position yet. Maybe it was hysteria, but the stress of being watched so closely by so many people actually became fun at some point. As long as I didn’t make any sudden movements or shift in my chair, I never heard a peep out of the rest of the crowd.

I told the men that I was a penulis (writer), and that I was going to share their story with the world. Considering the fact that a lot of them don’t read, and writing isn’t exactly a manly man’s occupation, I threw in the tidbit that I was once tentara (army) hoping it would earn some respect. This brought some gasps and chatter, which I only hoped were out of respect. But I learned later that the army in Indonesia is just as corrupt as the police; you have to buy your way in and bribe your way through the ranks. The army that they know doesn’t exactly attract the best kind of people.

Oops.

I sat for hours and watched as the women milled around pretty much doing all the work, meanwhile, the men did what they do best: sit on their asses and smoke themselves to oblivion. The village is very poor so above the traditional sarongs, people were wearing whatever they could get their hands on. Toothless old grandmothers walked around in circa 1980s Metallica T-shirts, and muscled old men carried around their fearsome-looking pedas (traditional machete weapon on the end of a wooden handle) while wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts. Seriously.

Next, a bowl was placed in front of me, and I learned that everyone present gets an equal portion of the meat from the dozen or so pigs and goats killed earlier. That says a lot about the village and the people. I was a complete stranger, extremely rich by their standards, and I was to receive the same portion as every person there regardless of age and rank.

Such generosity.

Sweating and grease-covered men walked around meticulously passing out equal-sized pieces of babi (pig) and kamping (goat). Pretty soon, I had amassed a small pile of the stuff in my bowl. There were at least three or four fist-sized pieces of gelatinous pig fat quivering at me every time someone bumped the table. The meat had been chopped up on the ground where dogs scavenged around looking for scraps and had been boiled a little in giant, iron vats. As far as I could tell, the fat was cold and pretty much raw. The men chatted and smoked excitedly — this really was a big deal and they were genuinely looking forward to the giant feast to come.

I, on the other hand, stared at the quivering white hunks of glistening fat and knew that I was a dead man. No way would I pass this test, and I regretted not having executed Plan B earlier: running off screaming into the jungle. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the bowl when the go-ahead to eat was given…my mind raced through options as far-fetched as stuffing the meat into my pockets and throwing out my shorts later.

When Lina came around and told me in English that I did not have to eat them here, I was allowed to take them home, I cried inward tears of relief. Being the nice guy I am, I donated the entire lot to her family. They happily accepted. 😉

Many men ate their portions there. With a diet that doesn’t see much fat, they were delighted to eat it. I ate plain rice again and a traditional food made of dried, smashed corn that looks exactly like Corn Flakes without the sugar. I learned later that the women smash the corn kernels individually one at a time by using rocks, hence the pebble I found.

Roy and I left the party and staggered home wearily after having sat for nearly eight hours. Lina and the women were left behind as usual to clean up the mess and collect the meat. Albeit a little clumsy, the toughest cultural challenge of my vagabonding so far was passed. I was told that there is another, larger two-day celebration here in two days with family coming in from all over Indonesia to take part. I unpacked, settled in physically and mentally for the long haul, and decided to stick it out to try to learn a little something about these caring people who so few visit.

Tomorrow, I am to approach the village chief and ask permission to take photos during the ceremony. If he accepts, I will be able to share images with you that very few get to see. (Once I get back to someplace with electricity that is!) No Westerner has ever photographed this ceremony.

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3 Responses to “The Final Exam”



  1. Nice! Sounds absolutely badass. I love the thought of hearing a record screech to a halt. Great imagery.

    Hope some pics are obtainable- go for that fat next time man!

  2. cool story. i have definitely seen beetlenut being chewed before. i live in hawaii and a good amount of pacific islanders like samoans and the like chew the stuff and i have seen their mouths so i know exactly what your talking about. ive heard the spit from that stuff can stain concrete and eat away at other hard materials. after seeing an experienced beetlenut mouth i feel as though i have to go brush my teeth for an hour but i cant imagine what it was like when everyone their chews the stuff.

  3. Yay !!! congrats, you tasted the moke (palm wine) and jagung titi (corn flake). If I havent tasted those my self before and read your story above, I will start running once they offered me…..nottttt. Get the moke in invidual glass and a black plastic bag full of cruncy jagung titi shared with everybody, kinda like them. Love the way you shared your story, keep writing that way.

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