The islands of Nusa Tenggara stretch out due east from Java like beads on a string: Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Alor. The names exotic and evocative. My progress through to the tip of Sumbawa was relatively quick and, for the first time in quite a while, I was no longer the only white person in the bus. All were heading from Bali, via the Gilis (a cluster of islands off Lombok that have become a party favourite), to the port of Labuanbajo on the tip of Flores, from where there are many tours to the islands of Komodo national park. The trans-Sumbawa buses connect to daily ferries linking Sape to ‘Bajo. But to the south, lies an island that many people bypass. Sumba’s attractions are not as obvious as those of Java, Bali or Sulawesi. For Indonesians c is best known for its horses. Not because they are particularly special, but because Sumba, with its drier climate and semi-savannah landscape, is the only place in the archipelago that is suited to them. For us foreigners who have seen horses before and think they are rather humdrum. Instead, thanks to being a generally poor island with few useful resources, the Sumbanese were pretty much left to their own devices throughout the colonial period, an attitude that didn’t really change much with Indonesia’s independence 65 years ago, so tribal traditions are stronger here than almost anywhere else in the archipelago.
“Have you been to Bali yet?” is the question that I’ve been asked by almost every single Indonesian I’ve met in the 3 months I’ve been here. Although Indonesia is a vast country comprising over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups and 742 different languages, I am white and ergo I must be going to Bali. If any foreigner has heard about Indonesia it is invariably about Bali. For many Australians it is their equivalent to the Spanish Costas for sun-starved northern Europeans, and their way of holidaying there is not at all dissimilar. Yes, I was planning to go to Bali I would reply, but also Sulawesi, Ambon, Flores, Sumatra and Java. There is more to Indonesia than just one island. Bali’s overwhelming presence on the tourist trail through Indonesia made me resent it even before I had set foot on it. I was sure I wouldn’t like it and wasn’t planning on staying long.