Knowing that Boti’s existence is completely independent of government help, that the land is their own and their harvest renders them wholly self sufficient, is reason enough to be in awe of this little community before you have even arrived. Then tales of animistic beliefs and people who communicate with wandering spirits builds up a reputation that a slim cobbled pathway and simple thatch-roof houses can barely live up to. It’s true that Boti is one of a kind but don’t expect to notice it. Instead admire the obscure hillside setting swamped in forest and enjoy the sincere and peaceful silence as it descends upon you. (How to get to Boti)
Dinner is a varied and delicious encounter with the local produce. While eating in the scarce candlelight my eyes rest upon a giant carved chair sans dimples. It looks luxurious and I ask if it is a throne. Our guide chokes on some rice through his short and abrupt laughter but after regaining his composure and giving a brief explanation I understand his amusement. The local tourist department have a select budget which they intend to use. They had previously approached Boti with a genius plan to “buy” them electricity but the the villagers were horrified at the thought and fervently refused such a drastic change to their tradition. Stuck for not knowing what else to do for this independent existence the board finally decided on ‘donating’ this throne-like piece of furniture. Its dark hulking figure couldn’t look more out of place beside the sunken red sofas and plastic tablecloth. Within the valley the sun drops quickly and with no electricity there is little else to do but retire to the simple wooden guest hut at the village entrance. The candles are blown out and apart from the creaking of beds as bodies try to get comfortable, all is silent. This silence outlives the dark skies and when the sun beams through our crooked window I feel the need to tiptoe to the outside toilet in order to preserve it. With light streaming through the lush forest and landing sporadically upon the single cobbled stairway and quaint straw roofs I can absorb the simplicity of Boti. Beyond the chiefs resident, the cones of traditional meeting houses tower into the sky and beyond them are plumes of smoke. Intrigued I urge myself closer and set my eyes on something so ordinary that it is hard to remember that this village is in fact extraordinary. A woman dressed in a loin and a dirty black t-shirt scrubs at a stack of tin bowls left on the sink. Between her feet and the legs of the bamboo table are a cluster of apprehensive chickens. On a pale blue plastic stool sits an elderly male spitting red betel nut juice just in time to stop the saliva dribbling down his chin. The pigs, freshly released from their night-time pen vehemently grunt their way through the fallen foliage wary of being caught and locked up again. Despite the extreme reports of this village and of their beliefs the reality of watching day to day life is simplistic, methodical and very refreshing. What you receive from a visit to Boti is a realistic experience, one in which the sunlight beams through the smoke in layers but doesn’t illuminate the whole picture.
Over breakfast I insist on attaining some factual information from our guide. Currently 316 people call Boti home and every single one of those people (through the voice of the chief) are committed to preserving their way of life that continues to rotate on a 9 day week. If a person is to marry someone from Boti they are automatically accepted into the inner community and are expected to relinquish any of their outside influences. Prior to marriage, a woman has to become a master weaver and have woven four blankets before her wedding day. Two for her husband and one for each of their families. The more prestigious the man the more pressure for an intricate design which shall be scrutinised by your new mother-in-law. This tradition is actually common practice throughout Timor. Once married a couple shall start producing children, with these births comes a weighty decision. For every two children one must be chosen to attend school and receive an outside education while the other shall remain by their mother/fathers side and rarely leave the village boundaries. By keeping the latter within the community their lives are exclusively fulfilled with Boti traditions and its specialised dialect. Their destiny is to ensure that this unique culture lives on in its purest form.
I look about me and revel in the pride that these villagers must feel in being able to preserve their ancestry. Then I correct myself, I have no idea what is inside their head, is it pride? Is it peace? Is it wishing they could be freed from their enclosure like the pigs? Right now the women look content while fluffing the hair of their children or clutching after them before they can grasp the cats tail but my mind keeps leading me astray. These women will always know peace and never experience hunger but is that enough to merit a life without choice and without the freedom? Is it any different from the preserved life of a white tiger in a zoo?
Aside from a mighty fine wedding, Boti villagers gather together to celebrate another major event, harvest time. It signifies the end of the working season, 6 solid months of planting, tending, gathering and preserving. Once the chief has appraised and applauded the seasons efforts the men gather together to create song, dance and build the famous animal totem; a pyramid of slaughtered animals from large to small (cow at the bottom and chicken balanced on the top). After a period of celebration and relaxation, the villagers can resume their hobbies and dedicate their time to their houses or their weaving practice until the new harvest season begins.
The chief speaks for everyone and they in turn speak to him and the outward voice is that Boti wants to continue to stand on its own two feet. But the people aside, in the developing word that we live in can it even last? There are currently debates between Timor’s tourism board and a french mining company who are interested in the land just outside of Boti. This may rapidly speed up the changes within Indonesia’s last authentic communities, only time will tell.