Toraja, Indonesia

Ikats & Effigies: Cultural Magic of Indonesia

Mike Messick|January 19, 2006|Blog Post

Borneo, Sulawesi, Sumba, Sumbawa, Bali...For me, few places conjure up the magical essence of the tropics like the islands in the western South Pacific. This is among the most foliage-rich and photogenic regions on earth and one I return to often with great anticipation of what I might next discover.

Active volcanoes seem to soar out of the sea and hover overhead, emitting occasional plumes of steam and smoke. Rainforests provide pristine habitat for the man-like orangutan, while Komodo's drier landscape is home to the infamous Komodo dragon. Wildly colored birds, including hornbills and parrots, flit by, flaunting their extreme coloration. Under the turquoise waters, the fish seem to show off too, and, as we snorkel above brilliant coral gardens, bright green parrot fish and blue-and-yellow-striped clown fish dart in and among the prolific sea anemones.

Ashore, life at first appears to be relaxed and easy-going compared to our frenzied Western pace. But in fact, life in these island countries that straddle the Equator has its own complexities, many of which are closely related to the seasons. With their due diligence and almost instinctive attention to the forces of nature, villagers never err on exactly when to do their painstaking rice planting, sowing each small shoot and tending it with care until harvest-time. The artfully tiered rice paddies channel rainfall through the fields efficiently. And, in symbiosis with the rice nurturing, farmers drive their small flocks of domesticated ducks through the paddies each day to root out the pests that might devour the rice stalks. Later, the ducks become food for the farmer's family and part of the time-honored ways of life that have cycled through the seasons for millennia.

In tandem with the natural order of things in the islands, is the traditional weaving of Indonesian ikats. These intricate weavings are created by spinning thread which is bound and tied--the meaning of ikat--into patterns before dipping the bound warp, a bit at a time, into rich natural dyes. Next, it is woven on a loom, with spectacular results--animal motifs appear, or geometric ceremonial patterns, all of which were tie-dyed into the original warp. Like rice-planting, ikat-making even has its own seasons. It can take a full year to complete an ikat, with each step performed during a certain season, in a routine that is both time-consuming and timeless.

The blend of cultures here also fascinates me and I learn more each time I return. Borneo, the world's third largest island, hosts three countries, all of which we visit during our expeditions: the gleaming sultanate of Brunei; the Iban longhouse culture of Sabah, Malaysia; and the Dayak heritage of Kalimantan, Indonesia. Sailing deeper into Indonesia, the enchanting islands of Nusa Tengarra archipelago--Sumba, Sumbawa, Bali, and Sulawesi--are home to numerous small communities where life remains culturally intact.

If you'd like to join me in sampling a juicy rambutan, a kebab of satay, and a jug of tuak--locally-made palm wine--I invite you to become one of our intrepid explorers and allow the magic of these South Seas islands to cast their lifelong spell.

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