Along with others I was encouraged to take a rest before midnight. I discovered the songkat was not only beautiful but also practical. It is sewn into a circle, you simply untie it, snuggle down inside of it, cover your head and sleep. So there I was, one human cocoon nestled on the floor mats alongside all the other cocooned people, sleeping until Mar came and gently tickled my foot to wake me up at midnight.
The ancient Manggarai customs and traditions are practised with equal importance and vitality alongside their strong, Catholic beliefs and Christian rituals. The New Year's Eve celebrations incorporated both.
Firstly, two roosters were sacrificed to the ancestors to thank them for their help and protection over the previous year and to ask for their continued blessings for the coming year. This part of the traditional, ceremonial aspects was completed once the livers of the roosters were placed on a bowl of rice and offered up to the ancestors. It was a dignified and serious ceremony and I could see the sincerity of emotions on the faces of the people.
All heads were bowed in prayer during the second part of the ceremony with the people asking for forgiveness for any bad things they may have done due to misunderstandings between people, holding a grudge against another or thinking badly of anyone. This element of the ceremony caused many to quietly shed tears as they reflected on their own individual concerns. Then everybody began to sing and I was completely overwhelmed by emotions myself. I closed my eyes to listen and felt I was sitting within a choir of divine Earthly angels. I wish I had known how beautiful their singing would be, I might have asked to record it to take home to Australia to keep their voices with me always. Silent tears of my own slid down my cheeks and these did not go unnoticed.
When the singing was finished Marsel turned to me and said, "We noticed you are crying can you tell us why? Are you missing your family?". I wasn't expecting that. I tried to explain that yes, I do miss my family, but my tears were not for them. My tears were because of how beautifully everyone sang together and just how beautiful they are. I can't remember exactly what I said and Marsel then translated for everyone. After this everyone went around the room embracing each other and some ladies struck up a spontaneous dance in the centre of the room.
I had brought lollipops for the children from Australia and now was the time to give them out. A lot like the Pied Piper, I was swamped by bright, smiling children all clamouring for a lollipop. A few nights before New Year's Eve I had been able to sit with Marsel's grandmother, Ine and the very young children in Keling. That was magical, neither the children or Ine could speak English and I could not speak Manggarai. Without the presence of other grownups, I lost all my inhibitions and played with the kids. I taught them to make a popping sound with a finger in your cheek, hilarious. Even Ine was giggling her head off. Then they all copied my actions and words to the nursery rhymes, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Incy Wincy Spider. Miming and mimicking are universally understood languages. After that, I drew funny faces on their fingertips and using the small amount of Bahasa Indonesia I have, I could ask them if they wanted a cat or a dog etc. The sound of the children and Ine's laughter and giggles was uplifting, a very special time for me. On New Year’s Eve those same children and quite a few others were happily enjoying their lollipops as well as Ine and her dear old friend from the village. (photos)
When my visit ended, and goodbyes had been shared with Marsel's immediate family, we started to walk down the main street in Keling to commence our trek to the road where we could reach the motorbikes and return to Labuan Bajo. I had already shared a few tears with Mar and Marsel's father, Nassus, and especially with Ine who believes she may never see me again but walking down the street proved equally emotional with different ladies I had spent time with coming out from their homes in turn to say goodbye to me with hugs and tears.
I fell in love with these warm hearted, hardworking people and their very generous souls. Despite the many hardships they endure they are contently living their daily lives, laughing and loving each other. It truly has been an amazing experience for me, in every way, I am forever changed by it.
If you ever happen to receive an invitation to stay in a village in Flores, please don’t let that wonderful opportunity pass you by.
Special thanks to Marsel Didi and his family who took such thoughtful care of me and treated me as an honoured guest in their home during my five day visit in Keling and to Ocha Miraty for assisting me with daily routines, explaining village life, never ending translations and her wonderful, ongoing friendship
Written by Donna Ellice