Indonesian festival turns into a flight for my life
Updated: Apr 29
After my traumatic accident in Australia in 2015, I promised my friends and family that I wouldn’t do anything rash or stupid.
Then I booked a flight to the poorest island in Indonesia and joined a group of people who didn’t speak my language in a wild festival that erupted in gunfire.
So, yeah, I guess I broke my promise.
I didn’t really mean to.
It all started due to a legal requirement that I leave Australia and re-enter the country to retain my visa. I decided to make the most out of it by booking a trip to Indonesia.
I was researching special events when I came across an obscure festival called Pasola on the remote island of Sumba. It just so happened it was occurring at the time I needed to leave Australia. After seeing photos of jousters with spears in hand, I decided I needed to see if first hand.
Sumba is an island of contradictions. It is rich with culture, crystal clear beaches and home to a valuable and unique breed of horse known for its stamina. On the other hand, it is the poorest island in Indonesia because of its lack of volcanoes, which enrich the soil for crops.
I reached out to a hotel there and asked about it. They told me the festival moves from village to village and the last hurrah was to occur in a small village called Kadi.
But they also warned me not to come. The event was dangerous for foreigners, they said. Three people died during the festival the previous year.
Maybe it was because I was still in a state of recklessness following the accident. Or maybe it was curiosity. At this point, I had made my mind up that I was going.
The chief of Sumba
When I finally arrived at my hotel, I went out to explore. At one point, I spotted a white person out of the corner of my eye, so I approached him. He introduced himself as Martin. He was from the Netherlands and had lived on the island for two years.
He married a local woman who happened to be island royalty, which also put him in a position of power on the island.
He mentioned he was putting a new roof on his house and I offered to help. He agreed, so I told him I would get a motorbike and come to his house.
No, he told me. He would pick me up. It’s too dangerous for a foreigner to ride around by themselves on a motorbike.
It was clear upon arriving at his house how poor the island was. All the kids in the village were considered his family’s slaves. They were installing a straw roof on his hut.
Only the chief had electricity. I asked to meet the chief.
Martin brought me to his house, and we sat across the room from each other. He was a large man because he had all the money, which means he had all the food.
We began talking with Martin as a translator.
The chief invited me to a picnic at a sacred lake known as Two Water Lakes. He said he would kill a chicken for the picnic. I offered to buy a goat.
Everyone froze. Martin warned me not to offer that unless I really meant it. Goats are really expensive, he said.
“How expensive?” I asked
He told me they were about $60.
I said I would do it.
The Pasola Festival
The next morning, I woke up early and hired a driver to take me to the village where the festival was taking place.
It was a five hour drive from the eastern part of the island where I was staying to the western end. As we drove, the island became more and more remote.
As we drove, the driver explained in broken English to me that in their culture, if you catch someone stealing from you, you will be rewarded if you bring the offender's head into the sheriff’s office. Though we didn’t speak the same language, I got the message. It began to dawn on me that maybe this wasn’t the safest place to have come.
We began passing men on horses wearing huge machetes.
Suddenly, the driver started hyperventilating. He closed all the windows and told me to stay quiet. We stopped at a roadblock, he cracked the window a couple inches and handed a man outside the equivalent of about $3.
After we passed through, I asked him what was going on. He told me everything was fine. I came to understand that the money was a bribe so that the officials wouldn’t check the car or not let me in because it was too dangerous.
When we arrived, the driver dropped me off and told me he was going to park the car at the edge of town. I grabbed my water bottle and GoPro, but for some reason left my passport, phone and wallet in the car.
After I got out of the car, the gravity of the situation began to wash over me. I was the only white person among thousands of locals. They stood around me with teeth dyed red from chewing betel nut. They all surrounded me and stared.
It dawned on me that leaving my passport, wallet and phone in the car with a driver I barely knew was a stupid move. What have I done? I thought to myself.
I began smiling, trying to look friendly and nonchalant, and set off to look around.
Suddenly I spotted another white person, so I approached him. He was a National Geographic photographer.
“Where are your guards?” he asked me.
When I told him I didn’t have any, he told me to stick with him. He had five.
I felt a little more comfortable at this point, so we began exploring, taking pictures and greeting the locals. I even got a selfie with Miss Indonesia. After a few interactions, it was clear people weren’t hostile to me, just curious. This is something that I continue to find the more I travel. Sometimes someone who seems intimidating from afar is just another person from a different culture trying to figure you out. I talk about this more in my post about becoming a monk at the Shaolin Temple in China.
The games began, which included an old-fashioned jousting session where the riders threw real wooden spears at each other. Tensions seemed to be rising, so I thought I would take one more photo and leave.
I went deeper into the festival, further away from my waiting vehicle.
Suddenly, one of the jousters charged another out of turn and threw a spear.
The whole festival erupted in chaos, thousand of rocks and hundreds of spears scattered across the sky, I was running for my life.
People were running and police took out their whips.
With nowhere else to go, I ran into the jungle and hid behind a tomb. I heard gunshots and could see smoke bombs going off.
A family beckoned me to come with them and signaled to me that leaving the hiding spot might be death.
What am I doing here? I asked myself.
After things had calmed down a bit, I ran through the jungle back toward the area my driver was to be waiting.
Fortunately, I found him and we headed back to the other side of the island.
During the ride home, the day cycled through my brain. I might have just literally dodged a bullet.
I started thinking about the promise I had made and the impact would have made on my friends and family if something had happened to me.
The picnic with the chief
The next day, Martin picked me up on a moped. I picked out a goat from his herd and paid him for it. Then we headed to the lake for a picnic with the chief.
The lake is a mysterious place. It’s surrounded by sandalwood trees, but there are no leaves in the lake. You aren’t allowed to swim in it unless you are sick.
We met up with the chief and his family and began preparing for the meal.
I started thinking about a conversation I had had with a friend a few weeks later. We were talking about eating meat. I told him I thought you shouldn’t eat meat if you can’t kill an animal yourself.
Well, this was my chance to put my actions where my mouth was. I’ll let you guess if I made good on my word or not.
I spent the rest of the time at the lake hearing stories about the royal family and learning about the superstitions on the island.
In the end, I made it back to Australia safely. But I didn’t return without wondering if I had just taken a risk too great for the sake of a new experience.
At the same time, I learned a lot by spending just a few days among people who seemed so different from me, but are human beings too. Testing the limits of your own fears makes you stronger and tends to diminish those fears.
And hey, it made for a good story.