When I first arrived on Sumba, it was a real adventure to travel around the island in a rental car, observing and learning about local habits and customs.
One of the first things that struck me, aside from the stunning vegetation, beaches and sea, was how you could buy gasoline from street vendors but never in actual gas stations. Stations were always closed, with a sign on the door that would read “habis”, meaning “finished”. Instead, along the streets there were long lines of vendors selling gasoline in plastic bottles. Plastic bottles, it turned out, were considered serious assets. There weren’t many around, but if you had one you could use it to contain and sell gas. On Sumba, the true mark of entrepreneurship was whether or not you had a plastic bottle.
I was surprised by the tenacity of the local vendors. All day, with the sun shining right on their backs, necks and faces, they would stand, waiting, in the heat. Most of them were young kids or elderly women.
When I got a hold of a plastic gasoline bottle, I assumed that was that and I could go on and drive to my destination. But no. There’s a second mandatory stop, with another kind of street vendors. These ones sold Sirih Pinang.
Sirih Pinang is a betel nut that the Sumbanese like to chew. It’s the most visible and prevalent custom on the island. The substance is a psychoactive and addictive stimulant, rich with symbolic meaning
Not only do people seem to like the act of chewing it, they also do so to make a public statement of their maturity. Be sure to have some with you at all times, as you’re expected to offer it to your host or guests!
Welcome to Sumba