Visiting the Indigenous village of Wae Rebo in Flores Island (Indonesia) was a unique occasion to see how this remote tribe of coffee producers lived, but also to perceive the distorting influence of our modern economy on them. It was a sour experience at times because of the commercial approach to the stranger and knowing that as visitors were also were contributing to that.
Arriving in Denge
We hitchhiked as far as we could from the closest town, and for the last km into the jungle with no traffic, we took a local bus (an old truck with wooden planks on the trunk and huge, loud speakers) to reach the village of Denge, at the feet of the forest before hiking to Wae Rebo, when it was already too late to reach it for a visit.The first disappointment came once we stepped down in Denge, since we had to argue with the selfish and arrogant local teacher, interested only in his fat-wallet. We advise against staying at his homestay, but we wrote a full note about that event: you can read later on this link about the behaviour of Mr Blasius in Denge.
Luckily local children were curious and warm-hearted: we played with them, we had discussions and we were even hosted for free by one of their families!
Hiking to Wae Rebo
The following morning we started our hike towards Wae Rebo through the rainforest: it’s a very pleasant walk, not difficult, and it takes about 2-3 hours. On the way we met old ladies carrying heavy baskets loaded on their heads and backs, and they were walking even faster than we did!
Once you arrive to the top of the hill you can see the famous pointy constructions of Wae Rebo from far away. The vegetation around is luxurious and the setting against the green mountains just stunning.
Here, resting inside a small hut, there is a bamboo percussion instrument that you are supposed to play to announce your arrival. Let’s call it an archaic inter phone!
Entry fee and economy in Wae Rebo
Once we reached the village we had to bargain the price for our admission. In fact what we didn’t like about this experience, was the continuous involvement of money. We totally understand their need of sustaining themselves, and create an income also for the local population.
But that was done in a very extreme and unfair way. In fact, if you have ever been to Indonesia, you probably know that there is a double entrance price: one for locals and one, usually about 10 times higher or even more, for foreigners. This is annoying but understandable if the target are tourists (it shouldn’t be so for travellers).
In Wae Rebo, not being a public attraction but private, they decided to set a single price for everybody. But unfortunately it was the foreign touristic price, also for Indonesians, so locals couldn’t afford to go there!
And so it was for us. Since we stayed in Indonesia for 1 year with temporary residents visa, funded totally by a local scholarship (about 120€ per month) and with same rights as locals, it was out of discussion that we could pay the sum they required just for a 2 hours visit. And on top of that you are supposed to go to Wae Rebo only with a paid guide and once you arrive in order to be accepted you have to go to the ceremonial house for a short ritual and you are forced to do an extra donation of money! So basically 3 payments: guide, hefty entrance fee and ritual donation.
If you are going there as a tourist, please do so, and help them sustain their existence.
But if you are a “local” then it doesn’t work. What we did, since we were really determined to go there even if they would send us back, was to go there without a guide (it was impossible to get lost) and once we were there to bargain our entrance price just for a visit (no night accommodation). We managed to get about half price entrance, still an expensive price for our Indonesian student budget, but we accepted the proposal, and find out there were also other Indonesians using the same tactic (for obvious reasons).
Visiting the village
After having participated and paid for the quick introductory ritual, we started exploring Wae Rebo.
The architecture of the village itself was really interesting with high pitched huts arranged in a semicircular way and shared between several members. Despite the height, only the ground floor was used, plus a deposit at the first level. All was made of natural materials like wood and bamboo.
The interior of the houses was quite dark and picturesque, and tiny solar panel were present in some of the buildings for a minimum of electricity.
Not far from the main settlement, there were a couple of construction made with metal sheets in a cubical form and even a reinforced concrete building not yet finished, intended to be a future visitor centre. Another negative influence brought from the “civilization” and unfortunately moving away Wae Rebo from its original appearance and traditions.
The guest room where tourist staying overnight slept, was really basic but tidy, with mattresses one next to the other and mosquito nets.
The huts of the locals were generally much more messy with many objects and tools lying around, and the common kitchen was quite primitive with pots on top of an open hearth.
People living in Wae Rebo looked really used to the presence of visitors and they were just going on with their daily duties as if the tourists were just invisible. They dressed with a mix of western and traditional clothes and they were happy to be photographed.
There were scenes of ordinary life, with the female lineage of the family combing each other’s hair, kids doing homework, workers drying and processing the coffee beans, or men just relaxing.
As of 2015 when we visited, apparently, children were not exempt from manual work and we saw several of them carrying coffee bags along the trail on our way back.
We are not sure how much of Wae Rebo is authentic and how much is a constructed attraction. It was not the perfect experience we would have wished for, but still one of a kind! So if you are in Flores Island consider a trip to Wae Rebo village but evaluate also your influence on them!