Getting older has never dampened Yoseph Ugis’s spirit to keep promoting culture and nature tourism in Greater Manggarai, particularly West Manggarai regency, West Flores, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).
The 74-year-old man demonstrates Caci dance, which is unique to the people of Greater Manggarai (East Manggarai, Manggarai and West Manggarai), and presents West Manggarai songs, whenever local and foreign tourists visit Sanggar Compang Toe, his dance studio in Melo hamlet, Mbeliling, West Manggarai.
Yoseph has been actively involved with the preservation of the Manggarai dance for decades by performing the Caci dance for visitors of Labuan Bajo,West Manggarai’s capital, Komodo and Rinca Islands with their Komodo dragons and Mbeliling forest reserve with its endemic birds of Flores.
Tourists have frequented these West Manggarai destinations not far from Melo hamlet since the opening of the Trans-Flores Road, extending from Larantuka, the capital of East Flores regency, to Labuan Bajo, the West Manggarai capital, in 1966.
In 1970, Manggarai regent Fransiskus Sales Lega (before Manggarai split in 2003) visited Komodo district and spent the night at Yoseph’s home in Melo. The regent enjoyed the beauty of Melo hamlet and watched the sunset by the Labuan Bajo Sea. In his message, he said that this hamlet would bring luck to its people through tourism. Fransiskus’s prediction came true. Domestic and foreign tourist arrivals in Melo totaled 12,000 until 2012, including former environmental minister Emil Salim, who savored genuine Flores coffee in the hamlet.
In 1972, a survey was conducted for the Trans-Flores repairs from Wae Sapo to Labuan Bajo and Melo hamlet, where Yoseph’s house served as a base camp for the survey team from Jakarta and NTT. “The joint team also affirmed Melo’s natural beauty and shared Fransiskus’s thoughts on the hamlet’s prospects,” Yoseph Ugis told The Jakarta Post recently.
Later, according to him, officials of the NTT gubernatorial and tourism office also visited Melo hamlet. “I was asked to greet the officials and serve them typical Manggarai drinks and snacks like coffee, tea, sweet potatoes, roasted and boiled bananas, and roasted papaya,” he said.
After reflecting on the advice and attention of all the government authorities that had visited Melo, Yoseph was even more determined to boost West Manggarai’s tourism by buying a plot of land in Tondong Melo (Melo hill) in 1979 to support promotional activity (where Compang Toe studio is now located).
Born in 1938, the Melo native spoke about the first foreigners that visited the hamlet, particularly Tondong Melo. They were the Joser Group from the Netherlands. “In 1992 alone, the Joser Group visited Melo six times. When they observed Tondong Melo, they called it ‘the Beautiful Peak of Melo’, thus helping promote the regency’s tourism at home and abroad. They also hoped that Tondong Melo would be an art performance center, which was realized in 1993,” he added.
Only two places in Greater Manggarai have been staging regular Caci dance performances, Tondong Melo and Waerebo, also in West Flores. The husband of Maria Bia (59) said that in 1999, he was called on to train in Kupang, the capital of NTT, on the condition that his dance troupe had to form a studio. After consulting the education and culture office of Manggarai regency at the time, he set up Sanggar Compang Toe.
“All visitors of the Beautiful Peak of Melo are now suggesting that Tondong Melo should become tourist resort, and that a Manggarai communal house should be built here. The construction of the traditional building in cooperation with external parties is being strived for,” he explained.
During the period of 1971-1990, guests that stayed in his home included visitors from Holland, (West) Germany, Australia, Japan, Britain and the US. From 1999-2001, Chirles J. Qua from Holland ordered Manggarai cooking for overseas promotion, with a group of 27 people arriving in Melo in 2001 to evaluate local food. They described the regency’s cuisine as the best on Flores Island.
Manggarai’s nature and culture tourism promotion from 2000-2001 was also supported by C.B. Kaehug, a World Bank consultant in Jakarta and native of Holland, through Garuda magazine. Meanwhile, German and French visitors filmed Caci dance shows for television shows in their respective countries.
“I’m just a farmer with not very much education, but my broad networks have enabled me to introduce and promote West Manggarai for 46 years so that both domestic and foreign communities can learn to appreciate Manggarai’s nature and culture,” the father of five pointed out.
What Yoseph regrets is that most people of Manggarai have found it hard to develop Manggarai’s unique handicrafts that have been handed down through generations. Consequently, when foreign visitors are in search of the region’s typical decorative articles, they usually have difficulty discovering such items.
“Tondong Melo still has something unique to offer besides its panorama and dance. It’s West Manggarai’s genuine ground coffee, with which we’ve entertained our local and foreign guests including The Jakarta Post and Kompas journalists while visiting Compang Toe,” concluded Yoseph.