Just Back From
I will never forget my first morning hike on Sumba, a small island the size of Massachusetts that sits halfway between Java and Papua New Guinea in the Indian Ocean. The trek began on a stretch of Nihi Sumba’s nearly two-mile private beach where colossal, moss-lined boulders protrude from the sea, revealing themselves each afternoon at low tide. We then cut into untamed jungle and across expansive rice paddy fields that almost flowed into the ocean. It felt like a scene from an adventure movie where we had uncovered new land. The adrenaline of being somewhere so far away and unfamiliar, coupled with the breathtaking natural beauty, made our lives bigger.
We came across two young boys filling pails of water from a well. It would be my first interaction with a Sumbanese person. The young boys stretched their arms as wide as they would go, smiled as big as their small mouths would allow and waved, yelling hello in the local dialect. We went to greet them, to take a photo, to show the boys the photo of themselves. It was clearly strange for them to see our stark, white skin, and even more so for them to see an image of themselves. There are no mirrors, let alone digital cameras or or smart phones in their villages. Our lives were made a little bigger again.
We came across a group of farmers—men, women and children alike, working their small plot of the rice fields. Our host asked permission for us to cross through, and the farmers showed us the easiest route. She explained that we were visiting from America; they had never heard of it. She explained that it was “very, very far away,” and our lives were made bigger all the more.
Lunch was waiting for us on a bluff overlooking the vast, undeveloped land. It was nothing short of perfect. We began to learn about the Sumbanese people, their traditions and their challenges, and decided after lunch to visit one of the most spiritual of the local villages. While Sumba is a predominantly Christian island, the local religion is Marapu and most people practice its traditions. The Marapu believe in the power of their ancestral spirits and all that they do, from the design of their homes to the ceremonial sacrificing of pig and water buffalo, is in honor of these ancestors and in the hopes of a fruitful year’s harvest. In our open-air safari Jeep, we traversed ravines and climbed rocky, dirt roads until we thundered our way to the top of the mountain where the village stood. The straw thatched huts made entirely of bamboo, always have three stories: the first houses the animals, the second is a platform for socializing and welcoming guests and the third serves as the main living quarters and space for worship and animal sacrifice. The horses, not accustomed to hearing cars (most people on Sumba do not own vehicles), spooked as we pulled up. The children all ran out, surprised, perhaps nervous, giggling and delighted. They followed us as we walked into the village to meet with the elders. We spent an hour visiting their homes, learning about their way of life. Each minute we were there, our lives became bigger.
Afternoons were spent surfing and snorkeling, horseback riding into the burning orange sunset, floating in the infinity pool with views of crashing waves, napping in hammocks and story-telling with other guests. The night sky, illuminated by stars, revealed itself with clarity, and we were humbled and full, and our lives were bigger, until we woke the next day and felt it all again.
I never stopped learning in my short time on Sumba, from the smallest of interactions with local people to experiencing the impactful work of the Sumba Foundation and the wells, malaria clinics and schools that have been established as a result of its patronage. Equally exciting was the very small community of like-minded travelers with me at Nihi Sumba. Smart, influential and sociable, there was a true six-degrees-of-separation among the other 50 or so guests. These were real travelers, most of whom had journeyed across the world for the second or third time, chasing those moments of humility, awe, inspiration and pure joy that Sumba generously offers over and over again.
Literary protagonists throughout the ages tell us that the answers to some of life’s most profound questions lie in the wilderness. Stories of heroic adventurers and Edwardian explorers show us that real inspiration and growth come from stepping away from the familiar and into the unknown. I have no such ambitions of journeying into wilderness or walking cross-country in search of life’s meaning or myself, but I do wonder what can be said of today’s world. Our constant supply of information certainly drives progress, but does it also rob us of our ability to imagine, to dream, and, in the context of travel, to live out our romantic ideals of discovery and exploration? In a world where everything feels already known, touched and influenced, where do we, as travelers, find those moments of transcendence that heighten our awareness, deepen our consciousness and help us to learn, grow and be wholly present?
I found one answer on Sumba Island, which I think may very well be the world’s best-kept secret: entirely undeveloped, but not uninhabited, primitive but accessible, gorgeously wild and unconditionally kind. Sumba unapologetically unfolds itself all at once to those privileged few who visit it. The island—with a population of nearly 700,000 but just one resort—never has more than 80 visitors on it. It is, in the purest sense, a lost world, a secret paradise, and it gave me everything I could have ever dreamed of getting out of travel.
The warm breeze glided over our uncovered Jeep as we headed back to the airport after our too short stay and I tried to hold on to each passing image of verdant jungle, every ray of warm, golden sunlight and the joyful sound of children’s voices that abounded.
It was a teary departure and a rough re-acclimation into daily life, but without wanting or desire. My feeling was one of immense gratitude that such a place exists and true fortune for having witnessed it. The adventure left me bursting with a sense of fulfillment. My life is bigger for having been to Sumba and I will always feel a profound bond with those who share the experience.
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