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Sekilas cerita Wae Rebo saya ambil dari The Jakarta Globe.
The adventure started with an old postcard of conical stilt houses set against a background of misty mountains. The general location? Somewhere in West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara.
In 2008, 15 young architects from the firm Han Awal and Partners Architects were in the process of deciding where to go for their traditional “patriotic” journey to visit remote islands every August to mark Independence Day.
When one of the architects produced the postcard with the arresting conical houses but no specific location, the group decided that this was were they were going to go.
“The old postcard became a magnet for us to visit the place,” said Yori Antar, the firm’s principal architect. The description [on the postcard] reads that the houses are made entirely of wood and palm fibers, and can accommodate over 100 people.”
“But nobody knew where it was,” research team member Varani Kosasih said. “No one had ever seen such a village before.”
The group decided to start in Flores. From there, they went to Ruteng, the capital of Manggarai, to get more information. Their luck changed when they dined at a Chinese restaurant there. On the walls were pictures of the village of Wae Rebo.
The restaurant owner directed the group to the village. From Ruteng, the architects drove four hours to Denge village, from where they walked to get to Wae Rebo.
Because it was raining heavily, the small paths in the jungle leading to the village became muddy and treacherous. Many times, the architects were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to get up the steep mountain paths.
“Every local we met along the way kept saying ‘It’s not far. Keep going,’ ” Varani recalled. “But it had been hours and we saw nothing. We were no longer sure whether this place even existed.”
At 3 p.m., they reached a green plateau in the middle of the surrounding mountains and finally caught their first glimpse of four conical houses similar to the ones on the postcard.
Located 1,200 meters above sea level, the village can be found in the Satar Lenda area. There are currently 88 families there, earning a living from growing yams, corn and coffee.
“Our ancestors said the village is 1,080 years old,” said Martinus, one of the villagers. Like some Wae Rebo residents, Martinus once left the village to study in Kombo, a small town about 11 kilometers away.
He then studied tourism in Maumere, and lived in Sanur, Bali, and Manila, Philippines, before going back to visit his parents in Wae Rebo in 2004.
“When I returned, the elders came to me and wept. They said that the village was on the brink of extinction. They were confused and didn’t know what to do,” Martinus said.
“They love the village so much and didn’t want to move anywhere else. On the other hand, it was becoming more and more difficult to continue living the way they did.”
Martinus decided to stay in Wae Rebo and help develop the local tourism industry. With Ary S Suhandy, from the Indonesia Ecotourism Network, and Jean-Marie Bompard, from Yayasan Bumi Kita, Martinus co-founded Lembaga Pariwisata Wae Rebo (Tourism Institution of Wae Rebo) in 2007.
Tourism slowly picked up. Between 2008 and 2009, the village was able to attract 294 tourists. It was a huge improvement from previous years, when the village saw no more than 40 tourists.
But while tourism generated more revenue, there was still little money for heritage preservation.
Villagers refer to the unique conical stilt houses built in the 1920s as Mbaru Niang. Of the seven houses originally built, only four remain. The others were lost to wear and tear.
“When it rained, we had to cover the roofs with plastic sheets so the rainwater wouldn’t get in the houses,” Martinus said.
In January 2009, Yori invited Martinus and several Wae Rebo elders to give a presentation to possible donors, among them Lisa Tirto Utomo of the Tirto Utomo Foundation in Jakarta.
The foundation agreed to fund the rebuilding of the Mbaru Niang, a library for the elementary school and a tourist information center in Denge. The project, which included the restoration of two houses, began in May 2009.
“The conical houses look simple, yet they’re actually very complicated,” Yori said. To restore them, the old houses were torn down and rebuilt from scratch, each requiring an elaborate ceremony to appease the spirits of the ancestor-dwellers.
“It is a tradition that we all must respect. If it is skipped, it won’t go well with the families living in the house,” Martinus said.
A special ceremony is conducted to seek the permission of the spirits in the jungle before trees are cut down. The wood is then carried into the village, accompanied by singing and dancing, similar to a bride being escorted to her new family.
Village elder Fransiskus Mudir was appointed foreman of the project.
“From above, the framework of the house looks like a spider web. The shape is a metaphor of an interconnection between the farmers and the soil that nourishes the people living in the house,” Fransiskus said.
Inspired by the natural surroundings, the houses are designed in such a way to allow them to withstand earthquakes and wind.
The Mbaru Niang is made up of five stories. The first level, the lutur, is divided into living quarters for family members. Each house can fit six to eight families, or more than one hundred people.
The second level, the lobo , functions as a barn. The third level, orlentar, is where people keep seeds for planting. The fourth level, the lempa rae, is where food reserves are stored, in case of harvest failures or long droughts.
The fifth level, hekang kode, is where they keep ceremonial items such as bamboo trays used to present offerings to ancestors.
“The house is cut like a pizza,” said architecture student Robin Hartanto. “A straight line is drawn from the center to divide the interiors into rooms and living quarters.”
The sweet-smelling, but tough local worok wood is used for the main pillars. Rattan fibers are used as flexible and resilient bindings for the pillars. Woven reeds and dried palm fibers are used to cover the roofs.
All these materials are sourced from the nearby jungle.
The first rebuilt house, called Tirta Gena Ndorom, was finished on Oct. 28, 2009. The 15-meter-by- 15-meter house also serves as a center for cultural activities.
The rebuilding of the second house incorporated some innovative techniques. The worok wood, deeply planted into the soil to hold up the house, was wrapped in plastic sheets and dried palm fibers to prevent rotting.
By doing this, the house is expected to last a hundred years.
Today, the four conical stilt houses stand proudly in the village. The project has also attracted more tourists, and the only path to Wae Rebo has been improved to accommodate visitors. “The condition is much better now,” Martinus said.
Robin and a fellow student, Faiz Suprahman, lived in Wae Rebo to record the rebuilding process.
“Two traditions blended in the process. There was a transfer of oral knowledge from the older to the younger generation on how to build Mbaru Niang in the village. On the other side, these students were there to record the whole process in writing and pictures to make a book. We are hoping to perpetuate the traditions of the Wae Rebo people,” Yori said.
A 290-page book, “Pesan Dari Wae Rebo” (“Message from Wae Rebo”), was launched last month at Salihara Gallery in South Jakarta.
“It’s also a record of a living culture. All this time, we only had records of past cultures such as temples and old monuments,” Yori said.
“But the Mbaru Niang still house the Wae Rebo people, thus it’s a living culture. These records are priceless.”