After visiting Lamalera, a small village in Indonesia that still practices whaling, Leo provides a non-judgmental view of the practice and the fascinating culture that surrounds it.
Lamalera is the name of an isolated Indonesian coastal village on the small Island of Lambata 1900 Km east of Jakarta. Situated between the Islands of Flores, famous for its colour-changing Kelimutu lakes, and the popular diving islands of Solor and Alor, Lambata we were told has very few visitors these days. Despite these grim factors spelled out to us by tourist information services in Kupang we continued on to Lamalera determined to witness one of the last remaining spots on the globe where whales are hunted traditionally. Indeed the trip to Lamalera as suggested in our guide book is not an easy one even getting your tongue around the towns you must pass through on the way even proves difficult. Try this for a tongue twister. First you must catch a boat to the Island of Lambata via Larantuka. Once in Lambata you must go to the truck stop in Lewoleba and ask for a truck going to Lamalera. The truck ride they forget to mention is a gruelling, bumpy, gut wrenching, fume sucking experience. Winding 30 km through forest and mountain villages on what one could best describe as a half constructed road, takes a long 4 hours to complete!!!
On arrival in Lamalera it is easy to forget the nauseating truck ride quickly and be struck by the picturesque beauty of the village. The half-mooned bay in the middle of the town, that houses the 30 foot long whaling boats is surrounded by rocky volcanic cliffs to either side. Perched upon these steep cliffs and mountain backdrop are small traditional style houses decorated with lush green hanging plants. The view from our home stay at the western end of the bay was spectacular giving you a sense of belonging in storybook land. Strangely enough our first encounter was not with an Indonesian wanting to know if we would like to participate in a whale hunt but rather an American anthropologist wanting to participate in a book exchange if we had any. Dave from the University of Massachusetts had been researching in the village for 11 months focusing on food bartering patterns and was desperate for new reading material.
Dave’s knowledge on the area was second only to the famous Oxford anthropologist Robert Barnes who has written extensively on Lamalera’s whaling and bartering practices over the past 25 years. Dave, quite a relaxed guy, sparked to life when we asked him about the hunt. His eyes drawing further out of their sockets and growing with each descriptive sentence demanded attention. “First it’s traditional, right, which means the 30 foot boats and paddles are handcrafted from local timber and are put together with wooden pegs. The local gebang palm fronds are woven to make sails and a one and a half-meter bamboo harpoonist’s platform is connected to the bow. Secondly they only hunt the toothed sperm whale, rare passing sharks including the whale shark, dolphins, sunfish, marlin, dorado and manta rays”. All species according to Dave are far from extinct. Other whales according to legend are sacred as they once helped to rescue a stranded whaling fleet and bring them safely back to shore. So when in the village a cry ‘whale’ is heard everybody who mans the 15 boats makes a beeline for the thatched roof boathouses and vigorously launches their boat into the water.
Dave, creeping forward on his chair, eyebrows raised and jaw constantly jolting forward trying to turn excited phrases into the calm and collected sentences of an anthropologist seemed to be under some kind of euphoric spell. Maybe his cool, calm and collected participant observation methods taught at anthropology school had been forgotten the moment and in the heat of the tropics he had gone as all anthropologists fear, ‘native’. Then again it might just be his lack of reading material that caused him to be over enthusiastic about his own experiences in Lamalera. Whatever the reason Dave had become very entertaining and we now listened attentively on the edge of our seats as he continued on. “Once the boats are launched and the sails raised the whalers in pursuit of their prey, position the boats as best they can alongside the swimming whale. In doing so they allow the harpoonist with his 3 meter long bamboo harpoon to launch himself off the boat through the air and plunge the harpoon into the back of the whale. The harpoonist with great skill must twist the harpoon while in the whale to ensure it does not come out and then swim back to the boat before the whale dives or tows the boats out to sea. As happened in 1994 when two boats were sunk after a whale had towed the crew close to the Island of Timor. Luckily a third boat was on hand to rescue the whalers who then drifted for days before being picked up by a passing ship. However if the whale decides to go in circles, as apparently most do, the boats try to position themselves alongside the whale and begin to hack with machetes and knives into the whale. Meanwhile, explains Dave, with a ‘you would have to be crazy’ look on his face, other whalers enter the blood stained water and try to pierce the heat of the whale from its underbelly with special long bladed knives. Once the whale is under control or its spirit broken, as the whalers prefer to say the long strenuous paddle with the whale in tow begins. Paddling to the chant “we do not hunt for fun, we desperately need your meat to live, to feed our hungry children” trying to appease the dying whale’s spirit.
Relaxing back into his chair Dave switches back into a more serious ethnographic mode as he explains where his study comes into play. How the Whale is divide once ashore between the village people and later bartered with inland villages for fruit, cooking oil, vegetables and rice. According to Dave everything from the whale is used as it is considered sinful and offensive to the whale’s spirit to do otherwise. Whale oil is burned in village lanterns and bones used in a variety of ways, from vertebrate ashtrays to supports for clothes lines and even artwork crafted by one villager depicting past whale hunts. For Dave the whale hunting in Lamalera is a sustainable operation and far from the modern mechanised slaughtering of other whaling practices undertaken by Japanese and Norwegian fishing boats. As Dave succinctly puts it, whaling in Lamalera is about obtaining enough food to survive not about ensuring your pallet is pleased by the rare taste of a dying species of whale.
The next few days we spend walking around town talking to fishermen who are busy repairing sails, making models of new boats and forging new harpoon tips with hammers over a fire. We meet a revered, muscular harpoonist who has claimed to have speared 37 whales and holds the record for spearing the largest whale ever caught only two months ago measuring an enormous 17 meters from head to tail. The fishermen who offer us some dried manta ray and dolphin to eat are all very friendly and noticeably older village folk. They complain openly about the absence from the whaling boats of a younger generation who “are lazy and don’t like to paddle”. Holding onto their tradition they suggest has become more difficult in recent years as many of the children now go to school or look for regular work in the bigger cities of Kupang and Larantuka. On the other side of the coin some villages tell us proudly, people from Lamalera are known for their intelligence and hold many prominent positions in local and intra island government affairs. “Even our village priest was the Indonesian representative for a number of years in the Vatican before returning home to retire. As it happened, the ailing priest, much respected in the village, was giving a special mass for the fishermen later that day and we were warmly invited by our home stay host to attend.
Which brings me to the rare ritual we did experience in the town of Lamalera, a special Sunday evening mass procession to pray for the absent whales that had not been sited in the last 2 months. As for the Lamalerans like everything else, their belief in Catholicism is based around whaling as represented by the two statues in town. One, a life size replica of the balding biblical character Peter the fisherman, complete with harpoon and rope in hand sits on the beach between the boat shelters. While the second, a large white statue of the first Dutch priest in the village, with bible in hand (looking remarkably like the Pope) is perched upon a harpoonist’s platform at the bow of a whaling boat. Other unique religious effigies are also present in town such as crucifixes crafted from whale bones and a large mural on the church wall telling the story of Peter the whaler/fisherman leading the village people of Lamalera towards a welcoming Jesus.
Needless to say it was a long drawn out mass that began at the beach with the retired priest giving a long history lesson going way back to the Portuguese colonisers until the present. In the fading light excited children lit candles and passed them around while our procession headed slowly up the steep hill towards the church. Stumbling over rocks and uneven ground our first stop to bless the local school and medical centre provided a magnificent view of the fading light over calm waters of the bay. The calm surface of the water was broken by a large school of frolicking fish, swimming confidently as if knowing it is forbidden for Lamaleran’s to fish on Sundays. They even began an alluring jump as the priest under his canopy blessed the school with holy water. The next few stops on the way to the church were to bless a communal hall and a volleyball court and test the faith of the parishioners who stood firm in the pouring rains. We eventually made it into the shelter of the church before having to run home over boulders in the dark torrential rain with a burnt out candle to guide us.
The next few days we spent talking to people in the village, women hand-weaving the local Ikat cloth, teachers, whalers and school children. All had different stories about visitors over the years. The respected anthropologists Robert Barnes and his wife who have written extensively on Lamalera since the 1970s; The Grenada television documentary crew who arrived with Barnes on one of his return visits; the passing tourist boats that once came from Bali and purchased the sacred sperm whale skull that has according to village legend resulted in the steady decline of whales being caught ever since; the U.N’ Food and Agricultural Organisation funded Norwegian master whaler and ship that lasted 3 years and nearly destroyed the fragile barter based economy; the Japanese film crew that literally shipped in expensive bottled drinking water for the intrepid documentary commentator to wash in; Tim and Anna from Australia who sailed in what was described by fishermen as a new concept of two boats with one sail (a 20 foot Catamaran). Mr Dave the Anthropologist who was very interested in food and who got it. And finally, the most recent visitor, the Jakarta-based World Wildlife Fund Indonesian representative who came to asses the sustainability of the whaling methods used in Lamalera.
After our brief stay it was hard not to conclude that one of the last places on earth where whales are still hunted in traditional style would soon become like the other remaining traditional whale hunting areas left. A place where tradition will die out and a few ritual hunts each year will remain to remind the rapidly changing Lamalerans of their connection with the past which has created their unique village and society of today.