Sumba is a large island, twice the size of nearby Bali. My colleagues and I have been working here for over seven years, and we’ve seen quite some changes in that time-span.
At the start, Tambolaka Airport was very small and only had a few scheduled flights a week that were often cancelled for lack of passengers. That’s a difficult scenario to imagine at airports in, say, London, Singapore or Sydney, where a flight is more likely to get sold-out. The early visitors were mainly anthropologists or other scholars that came to study the Sumbanese for their unique culture. Despite considerable foreign contact over the last few centuries, the Sumbanese people have kept their own indigenous customs and beliefs, which include an array of ancestor-worship rites. The scholars would come to observe the Pasola harvest festival, where tribesmen on horseback fight with wooden spears to fertilize the soil with blood, or to buy Ikats, a special Indonesian textile, for museums or personal collections. There were few modes of transportation, no places to eat Western food – or, rather, no places to eat at all unless you were a guest in a local home – and certainly no beers! Now, everything is available.
Electricity was just available a few hours a day, and there were only small pseudo-hotels. Air conditioning and hot water were unknowns. Wi-Fi? You might as well have asked for a jar of gold. In these conditions, it was really an adventure to come here and try to start a business. It was more than what my first architect was willing to undertake. She promptly quit when I told her I wanted us to go there. There was no information about the island, and to this day there are no full, reliable road-maps.
And yet, in part because of all that, I fell in love with the island and its landscape on first sight. My pioneer spirit was stimulated. I felt like an explorer from the Age of Discovery, only I had better intentions for the place, people and nature of the beautiful new place I had come to. Here I found boundless opportunity, and, for the first time in a long life, I felt like I arrived right where I was meant to be. Seven years later, no plans or desires to leave.