This barely-habitable beachfront village snakes off up two equal and opposite hills on either side. The closest market—where the locals insist they trade their wares, rather than sell them, although this is a very debatable point—is ten kilometers away to the east. Bemos, little converted minivans, shudder up the hill on the west side to take people to other places. An American journalist is shouted at by enthusiastic children eager to talk to him. There is a retired German avoiding the Thai rainy season. The dinghy team land and step onto sand that must be at least 60 degrees (centigrade) and Simon and Nick weather this for 90% of the walk to the shade, finally breaking and running at the last, much to the joy of the locals taking shelter by their boats, smoking cigarettes between.
So far so subsistence fishing village (with, yes, cell-phone tower poking out of the hillside that the Human Planet documentary team must have neglected to film), rural, coastal Indonesia, seen it all before. But the game they go for in this little village is a little different. Lamalera is one of the two remaining traditional whaling villages left in Indonesia—and the means by which they bring down anything from dolphins to sperm whales is why they’re left alone to hunt in peace by the national government (anything but peace, though, when it comes down to it).
They run and jump off the end of a boat powered by outboard motor—although they tell most people they row the boats, still, in this day and age, to preserve tradition, a complete falsehood but a gracious and acceptable one—they hurl themselves onto a whale/dolphin/anything big enough with a bloody great spear (point first, yes), which, when the rest of us arrive at shore, the children practice. They run around and throw in packs, slaying fearsome volcanic rocks, keeping tradition alive. Giving them a reason to live.
When we introduce a football, practice ends (naturally) and Nick joins them in a rock-laden game of beach football (also naturally). The locals give us their regular schtick, a good patter, telling us that they’ve caught 18 whales this year which is a great year, up on their average. They tell us they keep the beach clean because they were taught about sustainability and tourism in the 1970s by a preacher from the Netherlands. They tell us they kill anyone they catch fishing the reef with dynamite.
We explore a cemetery, invite and then have the two nonindigenous members of the local populous over for dinner where they give us a little more background on the village, no gloss. Doug, prenominate American journalist is clearly fluent in Bahasa Indonesia (lit. Language of Indonesia) and even more clearly invested in the people here, gives us the straight-up. The village have caught in actuality 31 whales this year, up on the average of 15 or 16—image appears of a feverish spear-fisherman calculating mean, median and mode for whales killed per annum on a copy of Excel ’95 in a sweltering corrugated iron building—and this may go some distance to explaining the pristine quality of the boats in the harbor, the regular bus service & c. & c. Whaling season runs normally from May to October, and as we’re in the fourth week of October, it seems like it’s all over.
The following morning, locals sell us one massive tuna and two little ones for a pretty fantastic price (roughly one fifteenth of price per kilo in a typical supermarket, one twentieth if you’re in Australia, of course), and Conrad, Chris and Simon proceed to gut it on the boat in what is a lesson for the first two and just a day at the office for the captain. Our bloodbath (and it is, producing what must be eight kilograms of top-draw tuna steak and bowls of sashimi aside) is a pastiche of what the other three are experiencing, who arranged to go on a hunt (price 150,000 local currency). Tue, Nick and Anne watch in fascination/horror as the villagers kill a few dolphins (of which there are enough to sustainably hunt, especially like this), closely miss an endangered manta ray and, something else pretty big that another hunting boat took. When they return to shore, all three of them jump in the water, swim about for a while and then fall asleep under the shade cloth on deck. They are drained, physically and emotionally.
When the three wake up from their nap, Simon and Conrad are stood, staring incredulously on the shore, eighty meters away, until a kind of spell washes away. Simon walks off. Conrad pushes through (actual) dozens of kids clambering onto the dinghy looking for a joyride to the boat (where the camera is, that he wants to get). Chris is teaching an impromptu ESL lesson that culminates in a swim and swims out to help Conrad get the dinghy off-shore, at which point Conrad drives off shouting about cameras and killer whales, leaving Chris ashore. There is a dead Orca whale beached between some rocks at shore with viscera pouring out of its head: number 32.
This village is beautiful and placid and is winning a battle against nature, a battle set up deliberately to be ritual and sustainable and fair, but it is car-crash like in its grotesque fascination.
When Conrad lands again on the beach and heads over to film this, the kids quickly lose interest with the dinghy and start running onto and then diving off the dead whale, which, up-close, blood coloring the sea orange and seeping into the volcanic stone, is smaller than you would think. Eventually the smell becomes overpowering (for some) and we up-anchor and head out. The mood on the boat is terse and there is the occasional bout of snappiness from everyone. Everyone has come a lot closer to nature—true nature: death—than they thought. The machismo of the spear hunting is a surface-level draw under which hides the grotesque, blood lusting and perfectly natural laws of the world. The village is serene and prosperous as we sail away.
Nobody is hugely hungry that night, but, the barbecued tuna steaks are amazing.
For more about our visit to to Lamalera please click here.