Flores is an amazing place to explore, with villages unchanged by time or outside influence, and a way of life that draws on time-honoured tradition. Here we learn about the settlement of Wuring, and its people who live a seafaring and sometimes nomadic existence.
Wuring is a coastal fishing village in the Sikka district, about two kilometres west of Maumere. Prior to the 1940’s, Wuring had few inhabitants, and was mostly covered by dense mangrove forests. However during the 1940s and through to the1960s, the Bajo people arrived by boat, and started building their distinctive ‘floating’ villages.
Now, Wuring has a population of over 2000, mostly Bajo people, with the majority of families working in the fishing industry, either catching, processing or selling fish. The Bajo people descend from the Sama-Bajau people, known as ‘sea-gypsies’ who live nomadically travelling by boat throughout South-East Asia. Famed for their nomadic life at sea, the Sama-Bajau and Bajo people lived on the water, subsisting on seafood and trading for what they needed from the land. Skilled in the water, they are known for their craft at boat-building, the adeptness with which they sail, and the fact that most Bajo can swim before they can walk, learning from a very early age the techniques needed to free-dive and hunt the oceans with homemade spears. The people of Wuring mostly speak Bajo, although they also speak some Sikka and Indonesian, and practice Islam.
Stories about how the village of Wuring got its name vary, depending on who you are talking to. Some people think it was originally named Buring, after the first Bajo person to settle there. Others think the village is named after a charismatic chicken called ‘Spots’ or ‘Bureh’ in Bajo, who was unbeatable in cockfights. The theory is that over time, the name Bureh became Wureh and eventually Wuring, and so the village was named after its formidable feathered fighter. A more peaceful origin story of the village name is that the word Wuring might derive from a Sikka word that describes the noise that comes from large conch shells being blown to summon people or mark a significant event.
The Bajo people, while ‘sea gypsies’ also build floating houses and communities, anchoring their families to each other and building village communities together. Their villages have a distinctive appearance, with houses built close to each other, less than two metres apart, and with an average height of three to four metres. They start by planting the support poles a metre into the seabed. Depending on the size of the house, between nine and sixteen poles will be used to support and elevate the dwelling. Traditionally, houses were just one large room, with curtains to separate sleeping and living areas. Now however, houses more typically resemble those found on land, with separate bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. The living room is a large, open area, wider than the other rooms, to allow the breeze to flow through and cool the house down. While the houses may look precariously positioned, they are actually very cleverly engineered to make the most of the lifestyle and environment, and now more than ever, built on very solid foundations. Running between the houses are ‘bridges’, made from blocks or bamboo sticks. These bridges connect the houses of the village, and provide pathways to jetties, or to land when the tide is high. It’s not unusual to see goats nimbly jumping from one pole-sized walkway to the other, and kids use the alleyways as play areas to play with their neighbours and friends.
The majority of the village housing is found on the east side of the village, as this is where most of the industry takes place. There are jetties and access to Sadang Bui, which is the main port in Maumere. The area is also used to launch boats and canoes that transport people and cargo from Wuring to other trade centres. The dock is also a place for cargo ships coming from Sulawesi, Makassar and Java, to load and unload, and is a hive of activity, as people sell their fish or other goods, restock, and trade with each other. The events on December 12th, 1992, changed the landscape in Wuring forever. The earthquake and tsunami that devastated the South-East Asian region, destroyed many parts of the village of Wuring, wiping out housing, infrastructure, and of course, costing the lives of so many. The people and government of Wuring rebuilt, extending their village, fortifying stilt houses, and building new infrastructure. Houses were rebuilt to a different standard and specification, with the view of safeguarding the future of the people of Wuring. The new area is called Wuring Torah, Wuring Ujung or Sea Wuring, and has a new road that allows transportation to reach the village.
Tourism in Wuring is a very recent development. The people here aren’t used to seeing Westerners, so don’t be surprised if you’re met with a lot of interest (I was asked for autographs), or shyness, especially from the kids. The markets are unlike any other I’ve ever seen, with fish and seafood that I couldn’t hope to identify, and luscious and exotic fruits and vegetables. It was an incredible sight, one I’ll never forget, and I’ll be back to soak up the busy harmony humming through the markets as soon as I can get there.