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Island of traditions and kettledrums

Alor and the sisterisland Pantar in the west, offer white beaches, and great diving and snorkling facilities. The islands are scattered with villages consisting of traditional family houses, built from tree stems with roofs of palm leaves. Some villages still live by their old traditions, depending on historic facts and isolation from the outside world.
Due to improvements in air- and water-connections Alor is better reachable for visitors. Merpati has several flights per week, however only a few do actually depart. A big number of boats regularly moors into a harbour, a Pelni ship (Keli Mutu) included.
The island forms the most eastern tip of the Solor- and Alor-archipelago and is about sixty kilometers from Timor. Of the about 140,000 people that live here, 75 percent is protestant, a result of the hard work of missionaries since the 1940's.

Almost a quarter of the people is muslem. In Larabaing is a beautiful old mosque. A handfull of residents still maintains to the traditional ancesteral religion and maintains all houses for the ancestors. The numbers are somewhat misleading, because the believe in spirits and other traditional religions are put under the christian population.
On Alor, the Suku Abui tribe is the most traditional; on Pantar the Suku Kaera maintained the ancestral tradition. This last tribe performs harvesting rituals in March or April.

Eight languages

Eight different languages are spoken on Alor, a remarkably high number on an island that only measures 2800 Most languages are non-Austronesian, related to those of Papua. The people also look like the people in Papua and New Guinee. The language which is seen as 'Alorese', spoken around Kalabahi, forms an exception. It's a dialect of the Lamaholot, an Austronesian language which can be found from East-Flores to Alor. The lingual isolation of the Alorese is maybe caused by the roughness of the inlands and the widespread headhunting in the past. Both didn't stimulate social contacts.

Lest visited island

The island of Alor is not a good destination for the normal tourist. The beaches and the underwaterworld are splendid, but there are not enough reasons to leave the paved paths that far. Only those who are over-interested in the traditional culture and enough power in the legs to overwin this rough landscape, are adviced to put Alor into their travelling schedules. However a road is built on this mountainous island, most villages and small settlements are still only reachable on foot. Most settlements along the southern coast, as well as the populated center on Pantar, are only to be visited by boat.
There are regular boat connections between Kalabahi and Baranusa, the most important city on Pantar, and to Kabir, the second important city. You can wait for someone to take you on a boat or you can rent a boat; prices depend on the distance and the amount of discounting.


Kalahabi is with it's 25,000 residents the biggest and in fact only city on Alor. The capital is located along the narrow Teluk Kalahabi. This water, 16 kilometers long and only one kilometer wide, has a whirlpool which is locally named 'goats mouth'. in Mali, 18 kilometers from Kalahabi, is a nice, three kilometer long beach near the landing strip.
However the island is not as famous for it's fabrics as other parts of Nusa Tenggara, the craftsmen also make very special ikats and also baskets of leaves and utilities, like sirih-containers. The islanders maintain their traditional way of living. With a litle effort you can visit one of the old villages. The best reachable village is Tapkala, located on a hill, about 13 kilometers from Kalabahi. The population is partially catholic, partly protestant. The village is the best organised touristic destination of Alor. Travellers looking for an authentic experience will be disappointed, but the groups will enjoy the atmosphere.

Around the head of the bird

A low, flat plateau, 'kepala buring' (birds heard) connects the peninsula with the rest of Alor. A paved road surrounds almost the entire plateau; only a small piece at the northern coast, between Mali and Kobar, is missing. For those who have little time and limited funds, a trip around the peninsula can offer you as much variety as a trip around entire Alor or a boat trip to Pantar.
Mali, at the northwestern tip of the plateau, offers nice beaches where you can have a nice swim and some snorkling. At low tides a very small stretch of land connects the 'mainland' with the small island of Sika, a place for birds and more beaches and clear water.

North from Kalabahi the road follows the northern coast from Teluk Kalabahi, crosses several villages and runs along several massive islamic graves. During the dry season the village of Ampera produces pottery, simple pots which are sold locally and on Flores. At the western side of Teluk Kalabahi the road turns towards the north to Alor Kecil.
This village is home to several clans whose ancestors came from Jawa or Sulawesi. Every clan has it's own adat, the house in which the heritage is parked. Here are the roots of every clan which has spread over Alor, Pantar and elsewhere. Every five years this village is place of a massive Sunat circumcision, in which islamic boys ages five to seven participate. While the youngsters are circumcised by an imam, his wife takes a drop of blood from the clitoris of the girls (without performing an African clitoridectomy).
A little higher, in Alor Besar, a handwritten edition of the quran is displayed with pride. The writing should be at least 600 years old. For a small fee the book can be seen, and you can make pictures of it. A little ahead you reach Kokar, a fishery village with a small harbour. The sunsets are great there.

In the head of the bird

The cool hinterlands of the peninsula can partially be visited by jeep, and more thoroughly on foot. The steep but mainly jeep-accessible road leads from Kalabahi to Kebun Kopi, Otavi and back to Kalabahi. Meanwhile, trucks drive in both directions. Between Lawahing and Otavi a new road has been constructed in the late 1990's which runs to Batu Putih at the northern coast. The steep roads from the coast to Kebun Kopi and Otavi are surrounded by dense vegetation which causes a limited panoramic view over the bay. Stop in Monbang, a settlement with traditional huts, but without tourist facilities.
The central part of the peninsula, on an altitude of 700 meters, is home to a forest of kenari trewes. The nuts are Alor's main export product, followed by tamarind, which is also harvested in this area. Kopra, the third most important export product is produced along the coastlines. Clove and arekapalms are also found in the inland area. Areka- or betel-nut forms, together with gambir and lemon, an ingredient of the slightly narcotic 'sirih pinang', or the so-called 'sirih-prune'.
Who wants to walk back from the coast to Kalabahi has two options: from Otavi a path runs towards Kokar, about two hours on foot; another longer path that also starts in Otavi, reaches the sea in Alor Besar or Ampera. This path splits near Bampalola, a traditional village in the hills where the ancestral houses are decorated with masts which symbolise the ancestors. Think about getting back to the coast before sunset, bemo are rare in the evening and the trip to Kalabahi in dark has little charm.

Surprised by a warrior

In April, towards the end of the wet season, the slopes are covered in beautiful green. I have choosen the village because Cora Dubois had made a study of it between 1932 and 1935, written down in The people of Alor. However I knew the people still lived following their old traditiona, I wasn't prepared for the encounter I got. A warrior in full dress jumped out of a hut all of a sudden and scared me to death. He waved with his sword and was armed with a bow and a basket full of arrows with sharp points. He was dressed in traditional cloth; to protect his back he wore a rectangular shield, made of the skin of a waterbuffalo. The warrior seemed to be in trance; he started a dance which reminded of the days that the Alorese were still headhunters. Now the dance served to impose the visitor. When hewas finished dancing he went back to the hut to return smiling, in normal clothing: and old shirt and worn trousers.

Moko: kettledrum

Moko are bronze kettledrums, whose design and decorations have their origin in the area around Dongson, the curent North-Vietnam. They have been found in several different locations in Indonesia - the 'Moon of Pejeng' on Bali, the drum of Selayar in Sulawesi - and were probably used for trade. Long after the high tide period of the Dongson culture (about 2000 years ago) many drums were made in Jawa and China. It's still a mystery how it's possible that this many moko end up on Alor. It's possible that merchand-ships stopped at the island to restock to and from the sandlewood-rich Timor. There are no clues however about the precious Alorese products against they were traded with the foreigners.

Makasarese traders transported some 19th century moko to Alor. A count of the Dutch government says that about 200,000 of these drums were to be found on Alor. In the report there were over twenty different categories of moko, which varied in price from a few cents to several thousands of euro's.
Moko are important symbols of status. But much more important is their ritual value. The instrument is an essential part of the bridal treasure and the drums were traded against human skulls which were needed for the rituals. That doesn't happen anymore, because headhunting was banned in 1941. When doing a marriage the needed number of moko depends on the social status of the bride. The same goes for the quality of the drums. It's no unusual that the best years of the mens life are filled with paying of the bridal treasure. Loans and depts which come with the marriages make the relationship stronger however.

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